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Sen. Mitch McConnell's earmark power credited for revitalizing Louisville

The Senate's top Republican is accusing Democrats of wasting Congress' lame-duck session on issues like gays in the military and the environment when tax cuts are the real priority. (Nov. 20)

"Nearly every day that the Senate has been in session for the past two years, I've come down to this very spot and said that Democrats were ignoring the wishes of the American people," McConnell said Nov. 15 from the well of the Senate. "When it comes to earmarks, I won't be guilty of the same thing."

This move brought him in line with upstart Rand Paul, the state's Republican senator-elect, and elicited praise from President Obama, who also wants to curb earmarks, a spending cut many criticize as symbolic. The slip-ons amount to about 1 percent of the overall federal budget.

In speaking out against "the abuse of the practice" in his remarks, rather than repudiating earmarks outright, McConnell may have left a small window open to return to them. Asked to comment on his reversal, a spokesman referred to McConnell's full remarks on Nov. 15.

For much of the past decade, McConnell hasn't treated earmarks as complicated at all.

Seeking reelection in 2008, he ran ads that bragged about the bacon he brought home, and the numbers flashed on the screen: $280 million for universities, $70 million to fight crime, $1 billion for parks and conservation.

Days before the election, McConnell shrewdly announced that he had secured $75 million to build a new Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Louisville. After he won, he told reporters that the strategy helped him survive that year's Democratic wave.

Given all that, David Weilage is aggravated and confused by McConnell's switch.

"It always concerns me when they start talking about cutting off the money," says Weilage, 53, who is waiting for a bus at the edge of the medical district, which covers about 20 city blocks. He is a semi-retired Vietnam War veteran who "kind of leans on the federal government myself" and considers the construction and new sports-and-entertainment arena "good for the city, good for the state."

"What they do with the deficit," Weilage says, "or how they work out what to cut, I have no control over that. I'm just trying to make ends meet myself."

Reaping more than most

The $458 million value of McConnell's earmarks over the past three years is not insignificant compared with the state's annual revenue of $8.4 billion. Through his efforts and those of other members of the delegation, Kentucky has regularly reaped more than most states.

The single largest individual recipient over the past three years has been the Army's pilot plant in Blue Grass, where scientists have been given $66 million to figure out how to turn outmoded, illegal chemical weapons into disposable chemicals.

McConnell made sure that students at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green would have better rides around their campus by securing $1.2 million for new shuttle buses.

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