WASHINGTON – The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to preserve thousands of earmarks in a $410 billion spending bill, brushing aside Sen. John McCain's claim that President Barack Obama and Congress are merely conducting business as usual in a time of economic hardship.
McCain's attempt to strip out an estimated 8,500 earmarks failed on a vote of 63-32. The Arizona senator's proposal also would have cut roughly $32 billion from the measure and would have kept spending at last year's levels in several federal agencies.
Last year's Republican presidential candidate said both he and Obama said during the campaign to "stop business as usual in Washington," and he quoted the president as having pledged to go line by line to make sure money was spent wisely.
The White House has said that Obama intends to sign the legislation, casting it as leftover business from 2008. Spokesman Robert Gibbs pledged on Monday the White House will issue new guidelines covering earmarks for future bills.
McCain's proposal drew the support of 32 Republicans and two Democrats, and the outcome reflected the enduring value of earmarks to lawmakers. While polls routinely show these pet projects to be unpopular, local governments and constituents often covet them for desired projects.
The maneuvering came on legislation to assure continued funding for several federal agencies past March 6. At $410 billion, the bill represents an 8 percent increase over last year's spending levels, more than double the rate of inflation.
Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said McCain's call to hold spending level with a year ago "doesn't account for inflation." As an example, he said some programs would have to be cut if federal workers were to receive a pay raise.
The House passed the legislation last week, and Democratic leaders are working to clear it without changes so the president can sign it by Friday.
While Republican opposition in the House focused more on the bill's overall spending, McCain and allies turned the Senate spotlight squarely on earmarks.
Taxpayers for Common Sense estimates the legislation contains 8,570 disclosed earmarks worth $7.7 billion. House Democrats declined to provide an estimate of the number of pet projects in the bill, and put their cost at $3.8 billion.
Democrats also say the value of earmarks is 5 percent lower than the last time Congress approved spending bills for an entire year.
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