- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

President Obama, who has been criticized for his plans to sign a pork-laden $410 billion omnibus spending package moving through Congress this week, will release new rules for earmarks prior to signing the bill, the White House said Monday.

“The president is going to draw some very clear lines about what’s going to happen going forward,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. “The rules of the road going forward for those many appropriations bills that will go through Congress and come to his desk will be done differently.”

Mr. Gibbs said privately that the president would announce the new rules - which the White House did not reveal when asked - either when he signs the omnibus bill or prior to the signing.

It is unclear, however, when the omnibus, a collection of federal appropriations bills that are part of the 2009 fiscal budget but have been delayed, will be approved by the Senate. The House passed the bill last week by a vote of 245 to 178.

The bill, which includes more than 9,000 pet project expenditures for lawmakers, is a political problem for Mr. Obama, who used the issue as a punching bag during the campaign as an example of how Washington was broken.

White House officials have said that the omnibus is “unfinished business” from last year, and on Monday, Mr. Gibbs argued that the government needs the bill to be passed so it can continue to function. Appropriations bills are done “usually before the fiscal year ends, generally before Congress recesses, most assuredly before the next Congress convenes. And I think blowing through all those hurdles rightly makes it last year’s business,” he said.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Monday that the omnibus was “not an emergency” and argued for a continuing resolution to fund the government for another short period of time.

“We have known about the Friday deadline for months, so no one should suddenly point to it now as a reason to rush $410 billion in spending,” he said.

“Americans are getting whiplash from all the spending we’re doing around here. We need to slow down and consider the consequence of every dollar we spend.”

Mr. Obama promised during the transition to reduce earmarks to a total value of less than $7.8 billion a year, compared to the $29 billion in earmarks during 2006. The earmarks in the omnibus, however, total more than $7.7 billion all by themselves, according to the watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense.

And when Congress passed the $787 billion stimulus plan last month, one of Mr. Obama’s main talking points was that it was free of earmarks.

Mr. Obama has already sponsored a bill during his time as a senator that requires lawmakers to attach their names to earmarks. But one proposal that Mr. Obama made during the transition is to require written justification for each earmark to be submitted 72 hours before the bill is passed.

Mr. Obama’s anti-earmark fervor has encountered resistance from the highest levels of Democratic leadership recently.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said that state-specific spending should be directed by lawmakers and not “be done by a bunch of nameless, faceless bureaucrats.”

Negotiations are ongoing this week between the White House and congressional leaders, with a number of details still under dispute.

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