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For a Senate Foe of Pork Barrel Spending, Two Bridges Too Far

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 21, 2005

Republicans in Congress say they are serious about cutting spending, but they learned yesterday to keep their hands off the "Bridge to Nowhere."

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a staunch opponent of pork barrel spending, tried to block $453 million for two Alaska bridges that had been tucked into the recent highway bill. Coburn wanted to redirect the money to the Interstate 10 bridge across Lake Pontchartrain, a major thoroughfare that was severely damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

Sen. Ted Stevens, the veteran Alaska Republican, was dramatic in his response. "I don't kid people," Stevens roared. "If the Senate decides to discriminate against our state . . . I will resign from this body."

Coburn's measure, offered as an amendment to the 2006 transportation appropriations bill, failed 82 to 15. The Senate also narrowly defeated spending an additional $3.1 billion on emergency heating-bill assistance for low-income people, a major priority for many Democrats, who said they would try to attach the increase to other bills this fall.

Although the Coburn amendment lost, it struck a chord among lawmakers as they face increasing belt-tightening pressure. Katrina and the war in Iraq have created billions in unexpected expenses, and Republicans as well Democrats would like to trim other programs to offset the cost. But yesterday's debate showed even an obscure budget item has its patrons.

One of the Alaska bridges, dubbed the "Bridge to Nowhere" by its critics, would connect one small town to a tiny island. It received $223 million in the highway bill that Congress passed this summer. The second bridge, named "Don Young's Way" in honor of its patron, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), received about $230 million -- but that is just a down payment on a cost that could hit $1.5 billion.

Coburn had wanted to shift all the money to the I-10 rebuilding project, which is expected to cost $500 million to $600 million. Because of restrictions in the way highway dollars are distributed, Coburn's amendment would have redirected $75 million to the Pontchartrain bridge while unfunding the two Alaska bridges.

"I believe that we should spend taxpayer dollars where they are most needed," Coburn wrote fellow senators asking for support.

The amendment became a cause celebre on the left and the right, with watchdog and conservative groups reporting updates on their Web sites throughout the day. The Club for Growth alerted readers early yesterday on its Web log, or blog: "As of last night, the opposition is putting up a big fight. They sense this amendment, if successful, as establishing a precedent. A precedent where all pork is vulnerable and no lawmaker is safe."

Later in the day, the Heritage Foundation circulated a paper, "The Bridge to Nowhere: A National Embarrassment," and noted, "fiscally responsible members of Congress should be eager to zero out its funding." Even the Sierra Club backed the amendment, noting, "We must fix the nation's existing infrastructure first."

And, there is a curious twist to the story: Many residents of Alaska appear to support forfeiting the bridge money for hurricane relief. "This money, a gift from the people of Alaska, will represent more than just material aid; it will be a symbol for our beleaguered democracy," reads a typical letter to the Anchorage Daily News.

Young, who made sure his state was one of the top recipients in the highway bill, was asked by an Alaska reporter what he made of the public support for redirecting the bridge money. "They can kiss my ear! That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard," he replied.

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