Top Democrats cross Obama on earmarks

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President Obama’s drive to change Washington’s free-spending ways is running into a buzz saw of opposition from his party, as another top congressional Democrat on Tuesday bucked the president’s plan to curb pork projects.

Mr. Obama also drew criticism from his party for his call to raise taxes on high earners, especially his plan to limit some taxpayers’ itemized deductions for charitable donations.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer became the second leading congressional Democrat in a week to push back against Mr. Obama’s drive to curb member-directed earmarks on spending bills.

Saying he was open to the president’s “suggestions” about how to reform the spending process, the Maryland Democrat told reporters, “I don’t think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do. I hope you all got that down.”

His remark echoed a warning from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, that the earmarks process is a congressional prerogative.

Regarding the deduction for charitable donations, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat and chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said he “would never want to adversely affect anything that is charitable or good.”

On Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Mr. Obama plans new rules on earmarks before Congress acts on the proposed $3.5 trillion budget for 2010. “The president is going to draw some very clear lines about what’s going to happen going forward,” Mr. Gibbs said.

If Mr. Obama pushes hard for earmark reform, he faces the first major rift of his administration with leaders of his own party in Congress. The president already faces attacks from Republicans and private watchdog groups about the persistence of earmarks and borrow-and-spend attitude on Capitol Hill.

“This happens with every president and every Congress,” said David E. Williams, vice president of the Washington watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. “President Bush said it. President Clinton said it. But they run into this thing called Congress. I don’t think they understand how powerful Congress is in determining the earmark agenda.”

Mr. Williams predicted that Mr. Obama ultimately would back down and accept “business as usual” on Capitol Hill, though he applauded the president for taking the public stand against earmarks.

Mr. Hoyer and Mr. Reid said that banning earmarks would undermine Congress’ constitutional power to control the government’s purse strings and would cede to the executive branch critical decisions on where federal taxpayer dollars are spent.

The Democrats faced the intraparty clash over congressional earmarks on a day when the Senate turned back a series of Republican moves to hold the line of spending in a $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill, instead backing an 8 percent spending increase for fiscal 2009.

Watchdog groups and Republicans have called on Mr. Obama to veto the omnibus as a demonstration of fiscal restraint and resolve against pork spending. But White House officials said he will sign the legislation, which the administration views as the final spending bill under President Bush.

The omnibus, which sets funding levels for more than a dozen Cabinet departments for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, would replace a stopgap spending measure that expires Friday.

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About the Author
David R. Sands

David R. Sands

Raised in Northern Virginia, David R. Sands received an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He worked as a reporter for several Washington-area business publications before joining The Washington Times.

At The Times, Mr. Sands has covered numerous beats, including international trade, banking, politics ...

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