Obama Trips on Pork

As Barack Obama meets with Republicans Tuesday, some in the GOP have enlisted an unlikely ally to derail his $825 billion stimulus plan – Barack Obama.

They’re using Obama’s pledge to keep earmarks out of the massive bill to criticize Democrats in Congress – saying projects like family-planning funding and arts spending in the House version are exactly the kind of pork-barrel spending Obama promised he’d fight.

“Many conservatives are just getting upset that Barack Obama comes into office talking about change and his first big initiative is a massive $800 billion dollar pork barrel project,” said Brian Darling, director of U.S. Senate Relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “If he wants to cut wasteful spending the first the thing he should do is veto his own stimulus bill.”

At issue is a list of programs that Republicans say will do little to stimulate economic recovery, including $21 million to sod the National Mall, $50 million to fund the National Endowment of the Arts and $650 million for digital TV coupons. Republicans also have seized on millions that would be spent under the bill to expand family-planning services in the states.

The projects are a fraction of the massive spending bill – and Democrats dispute that they’re pork. But the items have given Republicans a hook to rally opposition to the bill, on conservative talk-radio and elsewhere.

And they’ve put Obama in an uncomfortable spot. He swept into Washington promising to find a new way of doing business in the Capitol, one that would be more focused on bipartisan compromise and less on wasteful special interest earmarks.

The Republican objections also erased any hope Obama had for quick passage of the bill, requiring a heavy lobbying effort on Capitol Hill that is bringing Obama himself to meet with Republicans Tuesday.

Obama’s team also recognizes they won’t be able to approve of every aspect of the final bill – what he hopes will be the signature achievement of the first 100 days.

"There is a role for the (Congress) to play and we won't agree with everything," said one administration official. "It means there will be things in there we don't necessarily agree with."

The Senate version of the bill dropped some of the most controversial projects including the money for the National Mall and arts funding. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she has “no apologies” for the family-planning funds, which will take the burden off those programs in fiscally strapped states.

Still, Obama has stepped up his efforts to sell the bill, highlighting not just job creation but other goals like helping students go to college, lowering energy bills, and preserving health insurance for workers.

“This is not just a short-term program to boost employment,” said Obama in his weekly radio address. “It’s one that will invest in our most important priorities like energy and education, health care and a new infrastructure that are necessary to keep us strong and competitive in the 21st century.”

Obama hoped to have a stimulus bill waiting for his signature on his first day in office. The administration now hopes the bill is done by mid-February – a deadline Republicans seem to doubt will happen.

Republican lawmakers argue that the spending is too targeted on special interest programs and focuses on issues traditionally backed by more liberal members and their key constituencies. They believe the money would be better used to fund tax cuts, rather than more spending.

Democrats say the projects are legitimate ways to save jobs and help struggling families. For example, one administration official argued that spending $200 million to rehabilitate the National Mall would generate hundreds of jobs.

“There is more bang for the buck,” said Pelosi on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, “by investing in food stamps and in unemployment insurance than in any tax cut.”

The administration put out this counterargument to Republicans who are pulling out projects in an attempt to cast the bill as weighted down with pork: "The cost of doing nothing is dramatically higher."

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