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Battle Afoot Over Earmark Cut

Tucked deep inside President Barack Obama’s new White House Web site last week was a little-noticed campaign pledge that is already causing heartburn on Capitol Hill: a commitment to slash earmarks back to 1994 levels, a nearly 75 percent cut from 2006.

Several appropriators said they were unaware of the pledge — initially made during the presidential campaign when Obama’s then-rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), was promising to eliminate all earmark spending outright.

Obama’s plan is far more aggressive than the one announced earlier this year by House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) to cut earmarks in half.

With all the attention on the $825 billion economic stimulus package that will be earmark-free at Obama’s request, Democrats and Republicans have been quietly negotiating an omnibus appropriations bill for the remainder of fiscal 2009 that will include thousands of earmarks, with House Democrats hoping to pass both bills before the mid-February Presidents Day recess.

Democratic appropriators say there will be a modest additional cut in earmarks in the omnibus and have worked closely with the Obama administration on it, but the cut won’t come close to the 1994 level.

Obey and Inouye have promised that they will limit earmarks in future years to 1 percent of the discretionary budget, but that would still exceed $10 billion, well over Obama’s commitment, which is to cut earmarks to less than $7.8 billion a year.

“We’re not going to base our decisions on arbitrary numbers that haven’t been adjusted for inflation,” a House Democratic aide said.

Appropriators on both sides of Capitol Hill generally resist the idea of slashing earmarks that dramatically, arguing that it is always in the White House’s interest to eliminate them because it gives the administration the power to decide how to spend the money.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said she has more confidence that the new administration will make sure Louisiana gets the funding that it needs than she was under Bush, but she is not keen on cutting earmarks.

“I think an arbitrary line like that is going to be hard to meet,” she said.

“For Senators or House Members to give up their right to fund worthy projects, to relinquish that to unelected bureaucrats who have no accountability, who have never visited their states, is ludicrous,” she said.

“I think what we’re doing is a reasonable measure,” added Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security. “We’re cutting earmarks in half. That’s about as neat and clean as it gets.”

With sentiments like that, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the only appropriator who does not request earmarks, predicted Obama will ultimately cave.

Kirk said there are times when a president will “state a position knowing they are going to get rolled. ... The warthogs on the Hill will roll him.”

But not everyone is resisting the idea of a return to 1994 levels.

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