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The Rose Garden: Earmarks Won’t Spur Appropriations Vetoes

As the appropriations season gets under way, Congress is in control when it comes to preserving its ability to write earmarks, despite President Barack Obama’s vow to limit the practice.

Members love nothing more than to load up the earmarks in Washington and send them directly home to their districts and states, all neatly tucked away in a mammoth appropriations bill that no one will fully open to see what’s inside.

Obama has few options to stop Congress from adding the measures to bills — however unpalatable he finds them — beyond beseeching Members to behave themselves before they do it in the first place. And beyond the fact that he’s the president, they have no real reason to listen to him.

This is because, analysts say, there is little chance Obama is going to veto any spending bills, and Democrats know it.

It might seem otherwise. With the budget deficit scheduled to amount to at least a half-trillion dollars in 2012 — that’s the administration forecast, which many find optimistic at best — Obama could use a little show of fiscal discipline headed onto the campaign trail.

This is particularly true since he might be running against the likes of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) or Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), both of whom balanced budgets during their stewardships of their states. Romney, who appears for now to have the GOP pole position, even made the 2002 Olympics profitable.

A veto of his own party’s spending ideas would give Obama some hefty credibility on fiscal discipline, particularly if his plans come apart for placing the deficit on a steady downward trajectory leading into 2012. Such plans depend on uncertainties like a performing economy, the enactment of significant entitlement reform and a much more placid military environment overseas.

Bush was pilloried for his habitual complaints about Congress’ overspending while refusing to veto a single appropriations bill. Bush aides argued that their unrealized threats nevertheless helped pare down the bills.

But an Obama veto of an appropriations measure and all its dangling earmarks is not in the cards for several reasons.

Congressional Democrats note that the budget resolution they passed is actually slightly below Obama’s request, so there is room to pad some of the appropriations bills without exceeding his overall top line. And even if he finds some of the individual bills larded up with spending beyond what he wants, the president will be hard-pressed to make a fight when so many of his own priorities are at stake. By vetoing any bill, he could jeopardize initiatives he holds dear.

“The more he plays to the premise that the appropriations bills are driving the deficit, the harder it gets for him to get his own priorities funded,” said one House Democratic leadership aide.

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