Did Obama Blink In Earmark Battle?

By Lindsey Ellerson

Mar 11, 2009 5:37pm

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports: President Obama ran for office by promising to take on Washington’s ways. But, in seeking a middle ground on earmark reform, he is delaying a major clash with Congress — and signaling a willingness to work with lawmakers in an area many hold sacred. While the president flashed more strong language in his vow to tackle earmarks, critics immediately charged that he fell short of the spirit of his campaign promises, if not the substance. Where he once promised to comb the budget “line by line to make sure we’re not spending money unwisely,” today he quietly signed a $410 billion measure with some 8,500 earmarks in it — a bill he admitted is “imperfect.” And in outlining reforms to the earmark process moving forward, he collaborated with Democratic leaders who continue to defend their right to direct pockets of money as they see fit. “The president blinked,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group that seeks to eliminate wasteful spending. “The president missed an opportunity. He could have set a high bar. He could have fulfilled his promise to the American people to do something about spending.” “This is dithering around the edges,” Ellis added. The earmark reforms the president unveiled Wednesday were produced with the close cooperation of legislative leaders. It repackaged some provisions — including those surrounding transparency — that had already been in place. Skeptics — including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. — predicted that the new rules would have little real impact on how special projects are awarded to lawmakers. “Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll have to wait for more indictments and convictions before we get meaningful earmark reform,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. “The American people, even those of us who didn’t support him, expected change and expected him to do what he said he would do,” Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said on ABC NewsNOW’s “Politics Live.” “He promised, and you know, most of us think that when another person promises something, he or she will deliver. He has not delivered.” Still, by pronouncing a continued commitment to reforming the earmarking system, the president is laying down a marker for future spending battles with Congress. The new provision giving executive agencies review power over earmarks could spark confrontations the next time lawmakers come to appropriators with lists of projects they want funded. Steve Elmendorf, a veteran Democratic strategist, said the president’s commitment to fiscal discipline and earmark reform will provoke a clash with senior Democrats and Republicans. “There are a lot of people in Congress, in both parities, who feel very seriously about the prerogatives of Congress to help write the budget,” Elmendorf said. “Next year’s budget, they’re going to be under enormous pressure.” Earmarks weren’t a top-tier issue for Obama during the campaign trail, certainly not like they were for McCain. But the issues surrounding special projects are too high-profile for the president to ignore, Elmendorf said. “It fits in his overall message frame, in changing things and how they work,” he said. More on this topic, with me and ABC’s David Muir, on today’s “World News Webcast.”

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