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Hoyer: Congress, not Obama, to decide on earmarks

  • Story Highlights
  • House leader says Dems need to cut down on the number of earmarks
  • Sen. McCain is a staunch critic of pork-laden earmarks found in spending bills
  • Current spending bill keeps the federal government operating through September 30
  • Some of Obama's Cabinet members have earmarks requests included in bill
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer declared Tuesday that Congress, not President Obama, will decide whether to put more limits on earmarks in upcoming spending bills.

The U.S. Senate is voting this week on an emergency spending bill for FY09.

The U.S. Senate is voting this week on an emergency spending bill for FY09.

Asked about White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' statement Monday that the Obama administration was formulating guidelines for earmark reform, Hoyer said flatly, "I don't think the White House has the ability to tell us what to do."

He paused deliberately and quipped to reporters in the room, "I hope you all got that down."

Earmarks are unrelated pet projects that members of Congress insert in unrelated spending bills.

Hoyer pointed out that Democrats have cut down the number of earmarks and now require that all requests get posted on the Internet. But, he conceded, "I think there are additional things we can do and consider."

And the Maryland Democrat added, "It is certainly appropriate for the White House to suggest ways of going forward so that we can have agreement between the White House and ourselves."

He said congressional leaders have talked to the White House about "concerns it had," but refused to offer any specifics.

CNN reported Monday that, according to Democratic sources at a White House meeting last week, Obama urged Democratic leaders to "limit" future earmarks and, in what one official described as a "tense" exchange, the leaders told the president they'll do what they can to continue reform, but that earmarking projects for districts and states is a prerogative of Congress.

Hoyer, who attended the White House meeting, vigorously defended earmark requests Tuesday, calling them "the congressional initiative process."

"I philosophically believe it would be an undermining of the Article One responsibilities given to the Congress of the United States if it were to abandon its right to add items that it believes are priorities for our country and for the communities we represent as members of Congress," Hoyer said.

The majority leader dismissed a reporter's question on whether the $410 billion spending bill for the rest of this year is becoming an "embarrassment" to Obama, and reiterated Obama's argument that the package is "last year's business."

Hoyer also said that even though Obama, then a senator, did not request any earmarks in last year's spending bill, he did request projects for Illinois in prior years he served in the Senate.

Longtime pork barrel spending critic Sen. John McCain, who opposes earmarks, offered an amendment to the spending bill Tuesday that would have frozen spending at 2008 levels through the 2009 fiscal year, which ends September 30. McCain's amendment failed to pass Tuesday, which means the spending bill made up of about 1 percent earmarks will now go to a vote.

Obama has said he will sign the bill by Friday or the government runs out of money.

Critics, including McCain, have said the excessive spending in the bill would be contrary to the president's recent pledge to cut unnecessary government spending and pork-laden earmarks.

Cutting "wasteful" government spending was a pledge Obama made on the campaign trail and has repeated as president.

Despite Obama's promise, the administration says it inherited the spending and he will sign it.

On the Senate floor Monday, McCain blasted the president -- along with fellow Democrats and Republicans -- for the bill's earmarks.

"If it sounds like I'm angry, Mr. President, it's because I am. The American people today want the Congress to act in a fiscally responsible manner, and they don't want us to continue this corrupting practice [of unnecessary spending]," McCain said. "We're giving them [the American people] a slap in the face, Mr. President ... so much for the promise of change."

Several members of Obama's administration served in Congress and have earmarks listed on the bill.

Vice President Joe Biden requested $750,000 for a University of Delaware program during his time as a senator from that state. Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who was a Democratic congressman from Illinois, requested $900,000 for a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois.

An Emanuel aide told CNN on Monday the request was submitted more than a year ago and is leftover business.

But Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, said Washington is in a "state of denial."

"It seems that every morning you pick up the newspaper, you're reading about another multibillion-dollar government spending plan being proposed or, even worse, passed. ... We become numb to what the dollar figures really mean, or the obligation that accompanies them," he said in the weekly Republican address Saturday.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the $410 billion spending bill. House GOP leaders said the spending increases in the bill -- $31 billion more than the previous fiscal year -- are too large.

The bill passed on a largely party-line 245-178 vote, with most Democrats voting in favor of it and most Republicans opposed.

Republicans also criticized $7.7 billion in earmarks designed to support pet projects in individual lawmakers' districts. Democrats defended the size of the bill, saying it was necessary to help counter the economic downturn.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group, listed some of the earmarks being proposed by members on both side of the aisle.Read more of the group's analysis

Democrats defended the size of the bill, saying it was necessary to help counter the economic downturn and restore budget cuts made under former President George W. Bush.

CNN's Dana Bash, Ted Barrett, Ed Hornick and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

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