Presidential Contenders Show Up for Budget Votes

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008

Presidential politics swept onto the floor of the Senate yesterday, as the three contenders took a rare break from the campaign trail to return to Washington, cast a few votes and spar over spending on government pork.

The warring Democratic candidates -- Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) -- shook hands and chatted amiably when they met in the Senate, where their votes were needed to help Democratic leaders usher their $3 trillion budget blueprint through the closely divided chamber. Both had vowed to support a contentious amendment that would place a one-year moratorium on the home-state projects known as earmarks.

But even as Obama huddled cozily with his rival, his campaign fired off a news release assailing Clinton for her refusal to reveal the pet projects for which she has sought funding over the past few years -- before lawmakers were required to attach their names to the requests. After stalling for weeks, Obama's campaign released his earmark requests for 2005 and 2006 and called on Clinton to do the same.

"If Senator Clinton will not agree to join Senator Obama in releasing her earmark requests," said Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs, "voters should ask why she doesn't believe they have the right to know she wants to spend their tax dollars."

The demand was echoed yesterday by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Clinton's Senate office responded by releasing a list of projects that have been funded at her request and issuing a vow to make public her requests this year. Senior adviser Philippe Reines said Clinton "will limit requests for earmarks this year to the most critical needs for New York and America."

McCain has fought for decades against waste and pork-barrel spending and is one of only a handful of senators who do not seek earmarks. He has highlighted Clinton's unapologetic pursuit of pork, mocking her $1 million request for a museum devoted to the Woodstock music festival. Obama, who pursues earmarks only to fund public entities, suggested that that is a problem for Clinton.

Earmarks have "been an issue for a while now," Obama said in an interview. "But, obviously, we're entering into a political season, which means that they're going to get amplified. I don't think there's anything wrong with the concept of earmarks if they are transparent and above board." But, he added, a one-year moratorium to review the earmarking process would generate "confidence that taxpayer money is being well spent."

Obama spoke as he hurried from the Senate chamber to a private meeting in the office of Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), one in a long line of senators who took advantage of Obama's rare appearance to seek a meeting. Until yesterday, Obama had missed 22 consecutive votes, prompting Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) to quip in greeting: "You look familiar! I know the face!"

Clinton has not done much better in the past few weeks, missing 21 consecutive votes. McCain has missed 18 votes in the past few weeks, but overall his absenteeism is by far the worst, according to the database: Since this session of Congress convened last year, he has been absent for more than half the recorded votes.

Yesterday, McCain mingled cheerfully with his GOP colleagues, on a day when both parties summoned every available vote in hopes of prevailing in the annual battle over the budget. The ailing Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), looking pale and weak after a fall that left him hospitalized, showed up in a wheelchair to cast his first votes in more than two weeks. Even Vice President Cheney made a brief appearance to cast the tiebreaking vote in a Republican effort to cut the tax rate for the alternative minimum tax. Like many of the more than two dozen amendments offered yesterday, the effort ultimately failed.

Across the Capitol, the House adopted its version of the budget blueprint, voting 212 to 207 for a nonbinding resolution whose primary purpose is to set spending limits for the appropriations bills that will be crafted later this year. But as the sun set, the Senate was still arguing over a host of controversial amendments, including measures that would have extended Bush's signature tax cuts, increased funding for border enforcement and diverted money from Social Security into private accounts.

Late yesterday, the Senate finally voted on a proposal by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to ban earmarks this year. Though all three presidential candidates signed on as co-sponsors and stuck around to offer their support, the amendment failed on a procedural vote, 29 to 71.

"I am encouraged by some of my Democratic colleagues' new-found enthusiasm for suspending this practice for a year," McCain said earlier in a statement. "I hope their recent commitments do not wane once they step off the campaign trail."

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