Republican questions whether Tsarnaevs had ‘Obama phone’ benefits

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) on Thursday questioned whether the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings were the recipients of a federal phone subsidy for the poor that critics have dubbed the “Obama phone.”

Blackburn said a constituent recently asked whether the Tsarnaev brothers were participants in the Lifeline program after The Boston Herald reported that the older suspect, Tamerlan, had previously received welfare benefits.

"I even had one constituent [ask] after it came out that the … terrorists that committed the bombings in Boston were receiving welfare benefits, were they in this program? I think those are the kind of questions that our constituents are asking," Blackburn said at a House hearing on the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) Lifeline program.

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The Tennessee Republican is a critic of the Lifeline program, which she said is mismanaged and has ballooned in cost.

“When the Lifeline program was introduced in 1984, it only cost the government $380 million a year. Now that has increased to $2.2 billion," Blackburn said. "This is the kind of explosive growth this program has seen."

"I think if it were up for sunset today that many in this Congress would view and vote to take it down because of the mismanagement that is there," she added.

Republicans have criticized the program as wasteful government spending. 

The program was first enacted by Congress in 1985, during the Reagan administration. The FCC expanded the program to cover cellphone service in 2005.

Funding for the program comes via fees that telephone companies pass on to consumers on their monthly bills.

Democrats argued during the hearing that the program plays a vital role in helping low-income families get phone service. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said families would not be able to call for help in emergencies or participate in the economy without the program.

Waxman attacked criticism of the program and said "some have made up myths about the program to score political points."

"Here are the facts: President Obama did not create Lifeline, the government does not give away free cellphones or iPads, nowhere in America except in Tennessee do they call it an 'Obama phone,' and eliminating the Lifeline program — or disqualifying wireless services — would not reduce our nation's budget deficit by a single penny," Waxman said during his opening statements.

Brendan Sasso contributed to this report.