Senate GOP leaders take heat over millions of dollars in earmarks

Senate Republican leaders are taking heat for millions of dollars worth of earmarks they requested in a $1.1 trillion spending package on deck for passage this month.
 
GOP Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) convened a Wednesday morning press conference to criticize Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for trying to speed the package through the Senate before Christmas.

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But Thune and Cornyn faced a barrage of hostile questions about their earmarks by reporters from NPR, ABC News and NBC News.
 
“Going through this bill, there is earmark after earmark from the both of you, millions of dollars in earmarks from the two of you and from other senators,” ABC’s Jonathan Karl told Cornyn and Thune. “How do you have any credibility on this? Why do you have earmarks?”
 
Cornyn said he had credibility on the issue because he plans to vote against the omnibus spending bill.
 
“If people have concerns about what’s in the bill, we ought to be given an opportunity to offer amendments to strip those out and I’m happy to have that process done,” Cornyn said.
 
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan group that tracks federal spending, said that Cornyn secured $750,000 for a drinking water project in Midland, Texas; $800,000 for a stormwater mitigation project in Nacogdoches, Texas; $500,000 for a street improvement project in downtown Denton, Texas, among other projects.
 
“The simple answer is I’m going to vote against the bill and refuse all of those earmarks,” said Cornyn.
 
But that answer didn’t satisfy some members of the Capitol press corps.
 
“Isn’t it awkward, though, for you to be standing here and advocating for stripping these out when you both have requested them?” said Kelly O’Donnell, NBC News’s Hill correspondent. “It appears like you’re saying one thing and doing another.”
 
Thune pushed back against the charge of hypocrisy.
 
“If we get on the bill, I will vote against the bill. If amendments are offered to strip earmarks, I will vote for those amendments,” Thune said.
 
Cornyn and Thune tried to steer the news conference back to Reid’s decision to put a massive spending bill on the Senate floor in the waning days of the lame-duck session. The GOP leaders also highlighted the inclusion of more than $1 billion to fund the implementation of President Obama’s signature healthcare reform law.
 

“This is not just about earmarks,” said Cornyn.
 
“You’re missing the story if you think it’s just about earmarks. This is about a flawed process of sweetheart deals cut behind closed doors and a big spending bill dropped on the American people and on us on Dec. 14 without adequate time to amend it and debate it,” he added.
 
The GOP lawmakers called for a short-term, stop-gap spending measure to keep the government funded until the beginning of 2011, when Republicans will then control the House and can advance spending cuts.
 
ABC’s Karl kept pushing the issue of earmarks, asking Cornyn whether “it was wrong to put earmarks in the first place.”
 
“You’ve asked that question about five times and I’ve tried to answer it to the best of my ability,” Cornyn shot back.
 
A GOP aide immediately called an end to the conference as Cornyn and Thune quickly left the room followed by a crowd of reporters.