Bloggers help expose senator's role in blocking bill

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 30, 2006 

WASHINGTON—An unusual collaboration between Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Internet bloggers on Wednesday led a senator to publicly acknowledge that he'd been blocking a vote on a government accountability bill.

The admission by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, also offered a glimpse into the increasing role that online pundits play in U.S. policymaking.

Stevens' confirmation that he was behind the legislative "hold" on the bipartisan legislation came a day after Frist, a Republican from Tennessee, posted a Web log entry asking colleagues to cooperate with bloggers who were trying to identify who was using the legislative maneuver to stall a vote.

"Senator Stevens wants to ensure this bill is not going to create another layer of bureaucracy," said Aaron Saunders, Stevens' spokesman. Saunders added that Stevens hadn't decided whether to remove his hold. "There's a lot of important questions about what it's going to cost and how it's going to be implemented."

The legislation, by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., would create a database that people could access online to learn the worth and the recipients of government contracts, including those secured through pork-barrel spending, or earmarks.

The measure has bipartisan support from party leaders and has been championed for months by bloggers who, regardless of their political persuasion, advocate for more information to be available through the Internet.

"The left can very easily find out which earmarks Halliburton is involved with, and the right can find out which earmarks Planned Parenthood is involved with," said Erick Erickson of conservative RedState.com.

"When you have InstaPundit and RedState, some of the most influential conservative bloggers, working with (left-leaning) DailyKos, that's sort of a powerful grassroots alliance," said Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor.

But blog reporter Paul Kiel, who posted confirmation of Stevens' announcement on TPMmuckraker.com, said he doesn't see himself taking on a greater role in policymaking.

In this case, he said, the activism was about greater public disclosure, not any ideological issue. "We consider ourselves to be in the tradition of traditional journalism," Kiel said in a telephone interview.

Rebecca Carr of Cox Newspapers first identified Stevens in a story posted on the chain's Washington bureau Web site at 1:17 p.m. Wednesday.

Frist had posted a plea to senators on the Web site of VOLPAC, his leadership political action committee, saying he wanted the hold lifted when the Senate reconvenes next week so that senators can vote on the bill and send it to the House of Representatives this year. He said the legislation would enable Americans to track $1 trillion in spending.

His call followed a days-long campaign by blogs as diverse as PorkBusters and TPMmuckraker, which had telephoned every senator's office trying to confirm who was behind the hold.

Frist wrote, "I am calling on all members, when asked by the blog community, to instruct their staff to answer whether or not they have a hold, honestly and transparently, so I can pass this bill."

Stevens became the focus because his office was one of a handful that wouldn't rule out involvement, and he clashed last year with Coburn, who tried unsuccessfully to ridicule and block millions of dollars in controversial Alaskan bridge construction that Stevens had advocated.

Stevens, through his spokesman, denied that he was caving in to pressure by bloggers or that he had secretly blocked the legislation. Saunders said Stevens had notified Coburn.

"From our perspective, there was no need to shake out, no need for any detective work or any sleuthing. This was not a secret hold," Saunders said. "Senator Stevens has never gone to the media or to blogs when he has concerns about a bill or wants to handle legislative matters. Senator Stevens is a little bit of the old school—when you have a problem, you approach the senator in person."

Coburn's communications director, John Hart, disputed that account. He said Stevens didn't confirm his role in placing the hold until about two weeks later—and not until Coburn's office asked.

Of the hold, he said, "It makes Republicans look like they're trying to hide something."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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