March 4, 2009— -- President Obama's ambitious budget reforms are running into stiff resistance from members of his own party on Capitol Hill, testing his relationship with key centrists and members of the congressional leadership whose support will be critical to the advancement of the Obama agenda.
Despite his campaign promise to root out wasteful spending, the president is accepting, for the time being, lawmakers' "earmarked" special projects.
But by trying to skirt that political battle, Obama is creating another one: His commitment to signing into law an earmark-filled, $410 billion spending plan for the current fiscal year is raising questions among Democrats about his commitment to fiscal discipline.
Sen. Evan Bayh, a centrist Democrat from Indiana, today wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal challenging Obama to change course and veto the bill as now written.
"The Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 is a sprawling, $410 billion compilation of nine spending measures that lacks the slightest hint of austerity from the federal government or the recipients of its largess," Bayh wrote. "The Senate should reject this bill. If we do not, President Barack Obama should veto it."
Bayh is part of a group of about 15 moderate Democrats who are brainstorming ways to exert more influence on the budget process.
A liberal Democrat from Wisconsin, Sen. Russ Feingold, also today joined Bayh in saying he would oppose the measure, which contains about 8,500 earmarks.
"I'm going to vote against it," Feingold said, holding up the 1,000-page bill at a news conference on Capitol Hill. "The president should veto it."
While Obama has vowed to whittle down the number of earmarks, he opted to start that push with next year's spending measures, not this year's.
His administration argues that the spending bill should have been finished during the Bush administration, and therefore the earmarks in it are not entirely his responsibility.
"We want to just move on. Let's get this bill done, get it into law and move forward," Peter Orszag, the Obama administration's director of the Office of Management and Budget, told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" Sunday. "This is last year's business. We just need to move on."
Manure Is No Joke in Iowa
Obama's promise to sign the bill despite its earmarks represents a political calculation: Many members of Congress, including key members of Democratic leadership, are fierce defenders of earmarks, saying that the process is superior to letting bureaucrats direct spending.
On the Senate floor, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, today highlighted the difficulties ahead for Obama by defending what some see as pork-barrel spending for . . . pig odors.
Harkin said that the nearly $1.8 million in the spending bill for "swine odor and manure management research" is essential spending for his constituents.
"In farm country, manure and odor management are profound, serious challenges which can be mitigated through scientific research," Harkin said.
"I suppose we'll hear a lot of jokes on David Letterman and Jay Leno and a lot of other people will be making jokes about this money for manure. But keep in mind this is not wasteful or an unnecessary or frivolous. This is very important in the daily lives in the people of my state, in North Carolina and every other place where we raise swine."
The special projects in the spending bill have helped galvanize GOP opposition to Obama. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has angrily denounced the spending measure, and has been filing regular Twitter updates to highlight what he sees as egregious areas of spending.
At a Capitol Hill hearing, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., today pressed Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on why the administration isn't taking a tougher stand.
"What I don't understand is why you wouldn't have stood up and said to the Congress, 'OK, yeah, this may be last year's work but times have changed. The economy has changed. We need to start making tough choices.' "
The concerns among Republicans and Democrats appear unlikely to sink the spending bill, because defeat could result in a government shutdown, or additional temporary spending measures that most lawmakers don't consider better than the alternative.
White House Can't 'Tell Us What to Do'
But Obama's push to simultaneously press ahead with institutional reforms and fiscal discipline measures is running into competing political cross-currents.
Asked about the president's push to limit the number of earmarks, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., issued a quick reminder of who writes laws.
"I don't think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do," Hoyer told reporters. After a pause, he added: "I hope you all got that down."
ABC's Z. Byron Wolf and Matthew Jaffe contributed to this story.