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Mitch McConnell accused of getting favor in funding bill, but aides say it isn’t so

A provision on page 13 of the 35-page bill to end the government shutdown would add a large amount of money — more than $2 billion — in funding authorization to an obscure waterway project in Kentucky and Illinois.

The project is called the Olmsted Locks and Dam. It is run by the Army Corps of Engineers and is supposed to help ease barge traffic on a busy stretch of the Ohio River.

Shortly after the bill was released late Wednesday, some critics looked at this provision and saw a favor for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), one of the two Senate leaders who negotiated the bill. He is up for reelection in 2014.

The Senate Conservatives Fund, which has targeted McConnell with attacks from the right, called it “the Kentucky Kickback.”

“McConnell may try to blame someone else for this, but he wrote the bill and it’s not the first time he has sought funds for this project,” the group said in a news release. “This is what’s wrong with Washington and it’s what’s wrong with Mitch McConnell.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on the Senate floor for crafting a deal despite facing primary opposition from a candidate running to his right in the 2014 election. (Associated Press)

It’s true that McConnell had requested “earmark” funds for this project in the past, according to a database of such requests kept by Legistorm. Did he request that its inclusion in Wednesday’s Senate bill?

“No, he did not,” Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, said in an e-mail message.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in a statement that he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) requested the provision. “According to the Army Corps of Engineers, 160 million taxpayer dollars will be wasted because of canceled contracts if this language is not included,” Alexander said.

Senate staffers said there was bipartisan support for increasing the project’s funding. The provision does not allocate $2 billion; rather, it raises the cap for the amount Congress could allocate later. President Obama asked for it in his 2014 budget, and both the House and the Senate had passed bills allowing the increase this year. The House did criticize the Corps of Engineers, saying if it had managed the project better there would not be the need for the “massive increase” in funding authority.

The project, authorized in 1988, is intended to replace two locks and dams that were built in the 1930s.

In a gridlocked Congress, bills to increase the funding authorization have not become law. Senate staffers said the project was about to run out of money and would have begun shutting down in November.

If the program had to be shut down and then restarted, one Democratic aide said, the “cost to taxpayers would be an additional $80 million over the next six months, and $160 million if the project were terminated for one year.”

That pressing deadline was the reason that the funding was included in this bill. “Senator McConnell did not push for this provision,” the Democratic aide said.

Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.

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