Democrats Stop Effort To Remove Earmarks

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Senate approved $10 million in funding yesterday for clients of a now-disbanded lobbying firm that is under federal investigation for alleged fraud in political contributions to members of Congress, while approving an additional $16 million for pet projects such as a water-taxi service and manure management.

Rejecting efforts to strip the items, the Senate voted to leave the earmarks in a $410 billion spending bill that will fund most federal agencies through September. The bipartisan votes represent the steep climb that reformers, including President Obama and House Republican leaders, face as they seek to curb earmarks.

"We have a broken system that breeds this sort of behavior," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said during a tense debate.

McCain and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the main sponsor of yesterday's amendments, have lost at every turn this week in their effort to curb earmarks, which are narrow funding requests inserted into the annual spending bills. They thought their best chance was removing the earmarks for 13 clients of the PMA Group, a lobbying firm with close ties to senior House Democrats that is under investigation for suspicious campaign donations.

After an FBI raid on the firm's Crystal City offices in November, many partners left PMA, and its lobbying practice recently closed.

Democrats said ratifying the money was necessary because of a looming deadline this weekend to approve the new legislation or else have funding dry up for most federal agencies. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to consider an altered spending bill because her chamber already passed the legislation last week. If the PMA-tied earmarks were stripped, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said, Pelosi would approve a long-term bill at last year's funding level.

Some Democrats suggested that PMA's leaders, who have won hundreds of millions of dollars for their clients in congressional earmarks, may be guilty of a straw donor system for political contributions -- but that the clients themselves could still be worthy of the roughly $10 million in earmarks. "Yes, we know that the firm was raided by the FBI and we also know that the firm is in the process of being disbanded. But we also know no one from the firm has been convicted of any crime," said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the appropriations committee that drafted the $410 billion legislation, which could clear the Senate as early as today.

On the PMA amendment, 37 Republicans and six Democrats opposed funding the firm's clients, while 48 Democrats, two independents and two Republicans supported the earmarks.

A second Coburn amendment received just 34 votes. It would have stripped out earmarks including $1.9 million for a water-taxi service on a Connecticut beach and $1.8 million for research of swine odor and manure management in Iowa.

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