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McCaskill, Blunt at odds on permanent earmark ban

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 24, 2013 - WASHINGTON – Warning that U.S. Senate leaders may be planning to bring back earmarks, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill on Thursday revived her legislation from last year that would impose a permanent ban on such pet projects.

“I think [earmarking] is a ‘gateway drug,’ and I fear a relapse” in Congress, McCaskill, D-Mo., told reporters at a news conference. In the last Congress, both the Senate and House imposed a temporary moratorium on earmarks, but the Senate has yet to do so this year.

“Many of our [congressional] leaders are former appropriators, and I’m hearing rumors through the hallways that our leaders, Republican and Democrat, are trying to figure out a way to bring back earmarks,” McCaskill said.

She jointly sponsored the earmark-ban bill with a conservative Republican, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who praised McCaskill for “terrific leadership” on the Earmark Elimination Act.

But McCaskill’s fellow Missourian, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. – a member of the Appropriations Committee – said Thursday that he is not backing a permanent earmark ban, even though he thinks a temporary ban is likely to stay in place.

“I wouldn’t expect to be supportive of the earmark ban,” Blunt told reporters. “But I also expect that the [temporary] earmark ban is likely to continue.”

Blunt said Senate Republicans and the appropriations panel agreed on the earmark moratorium in the last Congress. “And I don’t know that it’s likely to change until we have a structure that convinces people that 1) we’re spending less money and 2) we have more safeguards. And I’m for both of those things.”

McCaskill and Toomey argued that earmarking is often just pork-barrel spending that, when it was permitted, led to bloated bills filled with pet projects of lawmakers who were on the right committees.

But Blunt said banning earmarks doesn’t cut spending a great deal and gives the president’s administration more control over federal spending.

“I’ve never thought that you have any real impact on spending by just letting the president decide how to spend all the money,” Blunt said.

For her part, McCaskill said, “It’s time for the public to be put on notice that this [earmark revival] is being talked about. And I think this is a great time for our colleagues to step up and make this ban a permanent one.”

The earmark elimination legislation – which McCaskill said would likely be offered at some point as an amendment to a wider bill – would:

  • Permanently ban all earmarks.
  • Define earmarks as any congressionally directed spending item, limited tax benefit or limited tariff benefit.
  • Create a point of order against any legislation containing an earmark. The point of order would only apply to the actual earmark, rather than to the entire bill.
  • Require a two-thirds vote to waive the point of order.

The bill is supported by groups including Citizens Against Government Waste, the Club for Growth, Heritage Action, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, FreedomWorks, and Ending Spending, Inc.

“There are those [senators] who are saying now, ‘If we only had earmarks, we wouldn’t have gridlock. If we only could give out goodies, we could get votes on things,’” McCaskill said.

“Really? That’s an embarrassing admission that there might be [senators] that were only willing to vote for something that’s meritorious if you give them something in return. I don’t think that should be the hallmark of how we spend money around here.”

McCaskill meets with Hagel on Friday, Blunt next week

It remains to be seen whether Missouri’s senators – both members of the Armed Services Committee – will disagree on the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense.

McCaskill said that, when she meets with Hagel on Friday, she planned to question him about Defense Department contracting and the problem of sexual assault in the military.

“I will have some very specific questions for him about contracting in the Pentagon, cost-savings in the Pentagon, the ability of the military to give up on a project that has gotten very expensive and isn’t going where they wanted it to go,” McCaskill said.

“There’s been a tendency at the Pentagon to hold on because we’ve spent some money and we’ve followed good money after bad for too long without saying: ‘Hey, this isn’t going to work’ or ‘The technology has not advanced to the point that what we’re doing is now obsolete.’”

In general, McCaskill said Hagel has “an amazing resume for the job.” And she complained that “some of the things that have been put out there about Chuck Hagel are, frankly specious.” Even so, she is not yet ready to commit herself as a definite yes vote.

Update: After Friday's meeting, McCaskill said Hagel "answered some tough questions on where we’re going to find savings for taxpayers in the Pentagon budget while maintaining the superiority of our armed forces.

"He’s got an excellent resume as a combat veteran and a strong understanding of the issues critical to protecting our national security interests, and I look forward to hearing his testimony in front of the full committee next week.”

Blunt, who said he would meet with Hagel early next week, told reporters he would ask questions related to the force structure under budget cuts, as well as Hagel’s current views on issues related to Iran and Israel.

“I’m very interested in his view of how you restructure the force,” said Blunt. “He seems to be in significant disagreement with Secretary [Leon] Panetta on the impact that sequestration would have on the military. I’d like to find out if that’s right, and compare the Panetta view of the military with the Hagel view of the military.”

Blunt hasn’t yet announced how he intended to vote on Hagel’s nomination, but said he has some concerns about the nominee’s positions related to “Iran and Israel and Hamas and Hezbollah."

“He seems to have backed away from all of those [previous] positions. That also is something I want to talk to him specifically about, both privately and at the hearing itself.”

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