- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 29, 2008

President Bush last night drew a line in the sand on “pork-barrel” spending that puts the presidential field on the spot and creates an election-year fight on an issue that unites Republicans but splits the Democratic presidential candidates.

Mr. Bush’s plan to severely limit earmarks, Washington-speak for pet projects, and to ignore the ones hidden in reports that aren’t even voted on will begin with the 2009 budget process and forces the candidates to say whether they will enforce it.

That, apparently, was the intention, presidential counselor Ed Gillespie told reporters yesterday, before Mr. Bush announced the new policy during his State of the Union address: “This will be on the books and will be an executive order that future presidents will have to repeal or live with.”

It won’t have much impact on Mr. Bush, who has less than a year left in office, and could not have been designed better for presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, for whom spending is one area on which he can find common ground with the conservative Republican base that he has irked so many times on immigration, campaign finance reform and tax cuts.

The Arizona Republican does not request earmarks himself and has already promised if elected to publicly ridicule lawmakers who insert earmarks into bills: “I will make them famous,” he vows on the campaign trail.

Last night, he expressed support for the executive order, which Mr. Bush plans to sign today. Mr. McCain said it “will ensure that in the future, all earmarks must appear directly in the language of bills as passed and may no longer be hidden away in conference reports.”

Other Republicans also stand to benefit from a fight over spending.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has called for an end to earmarked spending, and Mitt Romney regularly touts his fondness for vetoing spending bills during his term as governor of Massachusetts.

The spending fight is already paying dividends to Republicans, giving them an issue to rally around. Over the weekend House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, challenged his membership to swear off earmarks, and they responded by calling on Democrats to enact a one-year moratorium.

Still, some Republicans said Mr. Bush should go further and ignore the spending projects inserted into the current year’s worth of spending reports.

How the Democratic candidates will handle Mr. Bush’s challenge is more cloudy.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has made frequent use of pork-barrel spending projects and of her position on the Armed Services Committee, racking up millions of dollars worth of earmarks for New York companies and state and local governments. The Los Angeles Times, in a review of her earmarks last year, said she was so prolific that she was “on a different scale” than most of her colleagues.

In contrast, Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, has announced that he will no longer insert earmarks that benefit specific companies, restricting himself to earmarks for government projects.

Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama were in the chamber for last night’s speech, where the debate among Democrats on earmark spending was apparent by the split response to Mr. Bush. Some — including Mr. Obama — applauded Mr. Bush’s pork-barrel proposals, but others remained silent.

Still, Democrats across the board found unity yesterday in ridiculing Mr. Bush for seven years of deficits, fueled in part by his tax cuts and spending on the war in Iraq.

“At a time of war and economic hardship, the last thing we need is a permanent tax cut for Americans who don’t need them and weren’t even asking for them,” Mr. Obama said, reacting Mr. Bush’s speech.

Democrats also called Mr. Bush hypocritical for waiting until his final year — and facing a Democratic Congress — before pledging action.

Mr. Bush last night found himself in a position without parallel in modern political times — his vice president is not running to succeed him, leaving him without an obvious champion to argue for carrying on his legacy. That’s left the Republican candidates embracing him to varying degrees, while Democrats’ debate over the past year has been a contest to see who has opposed him more frequently or more vigorously.

Mr. Bush last night also called for action on immigration and entitlement spending — two issues he tried to tackle earlier in his second term, both with disastrous results.

Now, with one year to go, and facing a Democratic Congress, Mr. Bush has settled on spending — an area in which he can play defense and help his party at the same time by highlighting differences with Democrats.

But his push to continue to fight in Iraq will unite Democrats as surely as his spending proposals unite Republicans.

While Mr. Bush said the troop surge is working, Democrats have argued the Iraqi government has failed in its task, and no amount of American military muscle can force leaders there to work out solutions.

“President Bush isn’t satisfied with failure after failure in Iraq; he wants to bind the next president to his failed strategy,” Mrs. Clinton said in a statement after the speech, protesting the administration’s negotiations with Iraq about future security arrangements.

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