WASHINGTON—Like many of the Senate's Democratic freshmen, Missouri's Claire McCaskill campaigned last year against "earmark" spending projects. A unanimous Senate tightened rules on earmarks earlier this year to signal that it got the message.
McCaskill, however, didn't stop there. She was the only Democrat to co-sponsor a recent Republican effort to set new disclosure rules on earmarks, and some of her Democratic colleagues are grumbling about that.
This is another story in an occasional series about how a freshman senator learns the ways of Washington as her campaign commitments collide with the realities of power in the nation's capital.
The Commerce Committee was hearing about the future of satellite radio when an aide handed McCaskill a note. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina wanted the Senate to pass tighter disclosure rules on congressional earmarks. Would she agree to co-sponsor the move?
DeMint is a conservative Republican. McCaskill is a moderate Democrat and a former Missouri state auditor who brought her green eyeshade with her to Washington.
His invitation was tempting. Lawmakers can earmark money for pet spending projects into legislation without any review, often anonymously. The auditor in her recoiled at their potential for wasteful spending.
Though both parties are equal offenders, earmarks were part of the "culture of corruption" that Democrats cited when hammering Republicans last fall.
McCaskill read the note, looked at her aide and saw "a flashing red light." The aide's expression, she recalled, was a warning: "You're going into uncharted waters here in terms of being out there by yourself."
Flying solo is nothing new to McCaskill, however. She challenged her own party's sitting governor in 2004, beat him in the primary, then lost the general election. Some Missouri Democrats still haven't forgiven her.
In her first 100 days as a senator, she's bolted from her party on more roll-call votes than any of the eight Democratic freshmen, according to Congressional Quarterly. The authoritative magazine gave her a party loyalty score of 87 percent.
Only three of the 50 Democratic senators scored lower: red-state lawmakers Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
"She's not a rubber stamp," Nelson said.
DeMint, who served three terms as a Republican House member before he was elected to the Senate in 2004, said it's hard to buck party leaders, especially for a freshman.
"The pressure over time of trying to go along and support your team, it's always there," he said. But too many go along for their party's own good, he said. "A lot of us realize that in the end, it's what put the Republicans in the minority."
McCaskill said she's a loyal Democrat, but added: "I'm not going to vote for anything just on party loyalty. It's important to me to be seen as serious, thoughtful and substantial. Not just a maverick."
So far, she's lived up to her campaign rhetoric on earmarks. She's received nearly 200 requests for money from groups in Missouri, and she's turned down every one of them.
McCaskill told them that her office would help them seek federal grants and other forms of aid instead.
To critics, earmarks are the "pork" that lawmakers dole out to curry favor and grease their re-elections. Multimillion-dollar "bridges to nowhere" and other projects of dubious value have always been buried in the trillion-dollar federal budget, and lawmakers direct millions in subsidies to favored industries.
But earmark defenders argue that without them, many worthwhile projects such as community centers and highways wouldn't get built, and education and research programs wouldn't get funded.
Missouri received $433 million in earmarks last year, according to the Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget. That's largely thanks to McCaskill's Missouri colleague, Republican Sen. Kit Bond, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where earmarks are a way of life.
"The Constitution, Article 1, Section 9, gives Congress the power of the purse," Bond said. "I've been very productive in being able to make sure some of the money goes to the state."
Bond also has been trying to change McCaskill's mind.
But when she weighed DeMint's offer, she didn't need much persuading. He wanted the Senate to pass a rule requiring the publication of the name of every senator who requests an earmark, along with its amount and its destination.
She was the only Democrat to sign on.
Senate Democratic leaders quashed the move, saying they preferred not to change Senate rules "piecemeal."
"I don't care if it's piecemeal," McCaskill said later. "Let's just do it."
Back in her office later, McCaskill was nervous. The phone rang; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wanted to speak with her.
"I said, `Uh oh. Dum de dum dum.'"
Reid didn't even bring it up.
"She talked about (earmarks) in her campaign and made a lot of commitments, and I think we all respect that," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the secretary of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
McCaskill's home-state colleagues in the House of Representatives are trying to be equally understanding, but lots of money for Missouri is at stake.
The first signs of trouble appeared in January, when Missouri's House Democrats met with her in Rep. Ike Skelton's office to celebrate her victory and discuss mutual interests.
Skelton, the dean of the Missouri delegation, has been a congressman for nearly four decades and has mentored many rising Democrats. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver was a city councilman and mayor of Kansas City when McCaskill was a state legislator, then Jackson County prosecutor. They rose through the ranks together.
But when earmarks came up, "the room went from warm and effusive and cooled slightly," she said.
Her new colleagues told McCaskill that all earmarks weren't bad. They built a new roof for the Samuel U. Rogers Community Health Center and helped the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum expand. Her opposition, they warned, could pose political risks.
"I know she's trying to remain faithful to what she said on the campaign trail," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. "At some point she may have to tell her constituents that sitting on the outside, things look quite different than they do when you get inside."
McCaskill says she intends to study the earmark process this year. She won't say what she'll do about them in 2008.
Sen. McCaskill's personal Web site is at: http://www.claireonline.com/
Her official Senate Web site is at: http://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/senators/one_item_and_teasers/mccaskill.htm
Citizens Against Government Waste is at: http://www.cagw.org/site/PageServer
McClatchy Newspapers 2007