It's hard to know where Maria Cantwell stands on earmarks

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 10, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is of two minds when it comes to earmarks.

Tucked in the $410 billion spending bill the Senate approved Tuesday were nearly 100 earmarks, worth more than $78 million, that Cantwell inserted.

Among other things, Cantwell, along with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and the state's House members included $476,000 for a brain institute founded by Paul Allen, more than $800,000 to expand the often overcrowded neonatal intensive care unit at Richland's Kadlec Medical Center and nearly $250,000 for a research and marketing program for organic fruits and vegetables grown in the state.

But as the Senate debated the bill, Cantwell was one of four Democrats who supported an amendment offered by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, which would have stripped from the bill her earmarks along with more than 8,500 others worth $7.7 billion.

The amendment failed, 32-63.

In the end, Cantwell supported the spending bill.

Even so, her backing of the McCain amendment raised eyebrows among some of her Democratic colleagues. Cantwell offered no explanation for her support of the McCain amendment, but her office sent out a press release touting several earmarks of benefit to Washington state, including $2 million for a weather radar system for the coast.

"Funding these federal programs that invest in and help grow our country's economy and workforce is not only critical for immediate economic recovery, but also for our ability to compete on a global, 21st century scale," said Cantwell. "From investing in transportation and infrastructure projects, to protecting our kids from the dangers of gangs and meth, to providing our communities with a safety net to better predict severe storms, this bill makes investments in our state's future."

This year's earmarks represent a 5 percent reduction from last year's levels, which were already down 43 percent, according to Cantwell's office.

Murray, in a floor speech, defended the practice of what she called "congressionally directed spending," saying she wasn't going to let bureaucrats who had never been to Walla Walla, Blaine or Tacoma decide on federal spending for the state. She also pointed out the Constitution gave Congress, not the executive branch, control over spending.

"Washington is 2,500 miles away from the nation's capital," Murray said. "When I come to D.C., it is my responsibility to fight for my home state."

The spending bill will fund government operations through the rest of the current fiscal year. It includes the nine appropriations bills that were caught in the spending showdown between Congress and the Bush White House last fall. The bill contains money for virtually every government department and agency.

The so-called omnibus spending bill is not part of the $787 billion stimulus package approved by Congress last month nor is it part of the more than $3 trillion budget package for the next fiscal year President Barack Obama recently outlined for Congress.

Washington state's two senators and nine House members secured more than 400 earmarks in the omnibus bill worth more than $377 million, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense (www.taxpayer.net), a congressional watchdog group that analyzes earmarks.

The earmarks were for highways, roads, sewer projects, hospitals, transit, ferries, community centers, community colleges, law enforcement, methamphetamine programs, dams, levees and dozens of other programs and projects, Taxypayers for Common Sense said.

"I know politically earmarks are a hot topic," said Dr. Josh Weldin, medical director for the pediatric hospitalist program at Kadlec Medical Center. "Like most people, I think there are too many. But it's easy to be for hospital beds for premature babies."

The largest earmark for Washington state was $100 million for the light rail link from downtown Seattle to the University of Washington. The smallest was $25,000 for the Skagit Inter Local Drug Enforcement Unit. The bill provided $285,000 to expand a community center for the 5,000 Eritreans living in Seattle, $173,000 for asparagus production technologies and $457,000 for tidal energy research.

Also included was $380,000 to expand the Tacoma Goodwill work opportunity center; $1.2 million for the Downtown Tacoma Intermodal Center; $295,000 to link police officers on patrol in Whatcom County with real-time information on criminal offenders, and $20 million to continue work on removing two Elwha River dams on the Olympic Peninsula.

The earmark list included those sponsored by an individual lawmaker and those sponsored by a group of lawmakers. The money for the Allen Institute of Brain Science, which is doing gene-related research that could help find cures for such diseases as Alzheimer's, Parkinson, Autism and Epilepsy, was sponsored by Murray and Cantwell. The money for the neonatal intensive care unit was sponsored by Murray, Cantwell and Republican Rep. Doc Hastings whose district included Richland.

Only two of the state lawmakers did not request earmarks, Republican Reps. Dave Reichert and Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

Murray, by herself and with other lawmakers, secured 155 earmarks worth $171 million. She ranked 12th in the Senate in securing earmarks. Cantwell ranked 49th.

On the House side, Democratic Rep. Brian Baird, by himself and with other lawmakers, secured 30 earmarks worth $56.3 million. Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks came next with 42 earmarks worth $27.3 million followed by Democratic Rep. Adam Smith with 29 earmarks worth $23.3 million. Republican Hastings had 24 earmarks worth $16.8 million and Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen had 23 worth $15.9 million.

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