Sen. Coburn has 'serious concerns' with House funding bill for Metro

A fiscal conservative in the Senate is looking to kill what critics are calling the largest earmark in history.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has “serious concerns” about a House-passed bill seeking to authorize $1.5 billion over 10 years to Washington’s cash-strapped subway system, according to Coburn spokesman John Hart.

Hart did not elaborate further, but Coburn’s reputation for being a staunch fiscal conservative could create difficulties for the legislation that some in the House have characterized as an extravagant bailout for the rail system.

“We are hearing from Coburn’s staff that [he] is going to do something. … They want to pick up where the House left off and get rid of this earmark,” said David Williams, vice president of policy for watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.

The House last week barely passed the Metro bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). The measure was put on the suspension calendar, meaning it needed two-thirds of the House. It passed 242-120, with a majority of House Republicans rejecting it.

Nine Democrats voted against it, including Reps. Melissa Bean (Ill.), David Obey (Wis.) and Pete Stark (Calif.).

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who proudly calls himself a conservative, faces a difficult choice on the bill. Allen is up for reelection this year and is eyeing a White House run in 2008. While supporting the Davis legislation would win political points locally, it could also hurt his standing among fiscal conservatives across the country.

Allen is cautiously supportive of an increase for the metro system according to John Reid, the senator’s communications director.

“Senator Allen is generally supportive of the idea of increased funding for the Metro system since so many Virginians use it to get to and from the district for work and it helps keep vehicles off the already congested highways into and around the capital, but he needs to know more about this specific proposal,” Reid said. “Congressman Davis did not call to speak to him before he went forward with his plan.”

Reid added, “Hopefully the two men will have the chance to speak soon.”

A spokesman Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), chairman of the subcommittee where the bill was referred, did not return a call for comment.

Funding for the bill would come from revenue owed to the federal government by companies drilling for oil offshore, according to a Davis release.

The legislation also calls for “Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to come up with dedicated revenue sources to cover capital and operational expenses.”

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chairman of the Republican Study Committee’s budget and spending task force, called the legislation a “textbook example of an earmark” and characterized the allocation as irresponsible during a time of war.

Hensarling spokesman Brad Dayspring said in an e-mail that the debate on the issue of funding the Metro system has to do with priorities and if handing the largest earmark in history (according to the Heritage Foundation) to the D.C. Metro system is indeed a federal priority, then we need to work together to offset it elsewhere.”

“There have been staff-level conversations between several House and Senate offices that share Congressman Hensarling’s concerns with the $1.5 billion earmark,” Dayspring said. “Congress has already put $6.2 billion into the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority since its inception, and there should be an open debate as to whether handing over $1.5 billion to a single metropolitan area is a wise use of taxpayer dollars.”

Davis told The Hill that he had spoken to several senators about the bill and was confident that it would pass.

He said he had met with Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) to discuss the issue and that his staff had met with representatives from Allen’s office.

Davis expressed frustration with the Republican Study Committee, which had initially asked him to find offsets for the bill.

“We didn’t intend to have offsets,” he said, adding that when he did what the RSC had required, many RSC members chose to oppose the legislation anyway.

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