Two Republican senators say they will force their colleagues to vote on the Senate floor on each so-called pork-barrel spending project this year, and President Bush also called for reforms to rein in the projects.
The battle over earmarks -- the line-item projects that members of Congress insert into spending bills to benefit their districts -- has ballooned as Republicans debate congressional reforms and budget deficits.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma sent a letter Wednesday night to their colleagues announcing they will use Senate rules to force members to vote on each project.
"American taxpayers are entitled to a more thorough debate and disclosure about how their money is being spent," the senators wrote.
The spending debate has risen to the top of the House Republican leadership contest, and is exposing a split in the party, as many conservatives say Republican congressional leaders and the White House have not taken a hard enough line on deficits.
Mr. Bush said at his press conference yesterday he is "fully prepared to use the veto" if Congress overspends, but he said that hasn't been necessary because Congress has actually met his spending targets.
The Congressional Budget Office yesterday said its fiscal 2006 deficit estimate is $337 billion, a figure that war costs could raise to about $360 billion. Fiscal 2005 ended on Sept. 30 with a $318 billion deficit.
The long-term outlook showed the deficit gone by 2012, but that assumes Mr. Bush's tax cuts expire in 2011. If the tax cuts are extended, the deficit would be more than $500 billion.
Democrats laid the blame directly at Mr. Bush's feet.
"Simply put, the Bush administration's deficit figures are a disgrace," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.
Meanwhile House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the deficit is big in part because of "special-interest earmarks."
Mr. Bush yesterday weighed in on that debate, saying Congress will have to address earmarks and "special deals in the budget."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Mr. Bush wants budget reforms such as a line-item veto, which would allow him to strike earmarks, and a sunset commission to review federal programs.
Some members have proposed a ban on earmarks, but top Republican leaders such as House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois have defended the practice.
"Who knows best where to put a bridge or a highway or a red light in their district," he said in a radio interview with Michael Reagan this week. "We need to change how we do earmarks, we need to do it in the light of day and not the last minute type of situation, but I think we can do some reform on that and still serve what's in the best interest of the American people."
In a column yesterday in Roll Call, a newspaper covering Capitol Hill, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, California Republican, said giving up earmarks would end the congressional power of the purse.
He has proposed putting a cap on the number of earmarks allowed per member, and requiring that the requester submit a letter that would be printed in the Congressional Record.
But earmark opponents like Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said capping the total number of earmarks would just mean lawmakers ask for bigger-ticket items.
The Congressional Research Service said earmarks have grown from 4,126 in 1994, the year before Republicans gained control of Congress, to 15,268 in 2005.
Some lawmakers say earmarks are a red herring in the fight to cut the deficit, but Mr. Coburn argues it's a mind-set and if Congress takes care of the small items, it will also take care of the big items.
Mr. Coburn had a mixed record with the spending floor votes he did force last year.
He was unable to cut funding for the Defense Travel System and he lost, 82-15, a vote to strike money for the so-called "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska. But the public fight over the bridge led Republican leaders to drop the earmark a few weeks later.