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Obama Targets 'Earmarks' in New Spending Bill

President Obama agreed to sign an "imperfect" spending bill to keep the government running, but he called for a crackdown on lawmakers adding "earmarks"—or pet projects—to legislation.

Obama was speaking Wednesday about a $410 billion spending bill—passed by Congress earlier this week—which has been heavily criticized because of many earmarks.

He said not all earmarks are bad. But Obama also said that such special spending for projects in lawmakers' home districts will have to be justified in the future.

He said: "I also view this as a departure point for more far-reaching change."

White House officials in recent weeks have dismissed criticism of the earmarks in the bill, saying the legislation was a remnant of last year and that the president planned to turn his attention to future spending instead of looking backward.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama isn't the first president to sign legislation that he viewed as less than ideal.

Asked whether Obama had second thoughts about signing the bill, Gibbs' reply was curt: "No."

Barack Obama
AP
Barack Obama

"This is necessary to continue funding government," Gibbs said. "It represents last year's business. Although it's not perfect, the president will sign the legislation, but demonstrate for all involved rules moving forward that he thinks can make this process work a little bit better."

It's that process that administration official planned to focus on Wednesday, not a bill signing that might take place in private.

Aides said the administration would move to introduce new "rules of the road" that could allow Obama greater sway over lawmakers, particularly on politically embarrassing spending that generated mockery from pundits and rival politicians.

During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to force Congress to curb its pork-barrel-spending ways.

Yet the bill sent from the Democratic-controlled Congress to the White House on Tuesday contained 7,991 earmarks totaling $5.5 billion, according to calculations by the Republican staff of the House Appropriations Committee.

While the White House would say only that Obama would announce new rules on earmarks on Wednesday, it was clear he wanted to rein in spending, particularly on the pet projects lawmakers inserted into the spending bill.

The 1,132-page bill has an extraordinary reach, wrapping together nine spending bills to fund the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.

Among the many earmarks are $485,000 for a boarding school for at-risk native students in western Alaska and $1.2 million for Helen Keller International so the nonprofit can provide eyeglasses to students with poor vision.

Most of the government has been running on a stopgap funding bill set to expire at midnight Wednesday.

Refusing to sign the newly completed spending bill would force Congress to pass another bill to keep the lights on come Thursday or else shut down the massive federal government.

Uncle Sam taking money out of your wallet
iStockphoto
Uncle Sam taking money out of your wallet

That is an unlikely possibility for a president who has spent just seven weeks in office.

The $410 billion bill includes significant increases in food aid for the poor, energy research and other programs.

It was supposed to have been completed last fall, but Democrats opted against election-year battles with Republicans and former President George W. Bush.

The measure was a top priority for Democratic leaders, who praised it for numerous increases denied by Bush. It once enjoyed support from Republicans.

But the bill ran into an unexpected political hailstorm in Congress after Obama's spending-heavy economic stimulus bill and his 2010 budget plan, which forecast a $1.8 trillion deficit for the current budget year.

The bill's big increases—among them a 14 percent boost for a popular program that feeds infants and poor women and a 10 percent increase for housing vouchers for the poor—represent a clear win for Democrats who spent most of the past decade battling with Bush over money for domestic programs.

Generous above-inflation increases are spread throughout, including a $2.4 billion, 13 percent increase for the Agriculture Department and a 10 percent increase for the money-losing Amtrak passenger rail system.

The measure also contains a provision denying lawmakers the automatic cost-of-living pay increase they are due next Jan. 1.

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