Thanks to powerful stand taken by two Democrats, Evan Bayh and Russ Feingold, who said they will vote against the $410-billion spending bill as long as it contains 9,000 earmarks (member pork projects worth nearly $8 billion), the Senate leadership came up one vote short on moving the bill forward. Congress is now giving itself another five days to pry the needed vote, probably from Republicans, many of whom want their own earmarks to pass although they are stalling for the moment. Some other Republicans, led by John McCain, are leading the charge against this unconscionable waste at a time when federal dollars are needed for more important things.
Throughout his campaign last year, President Obama promised repeatedly to change the tired ways of Washington, reform the "old politics," and specifically go line by line through the federal budget to restrain wasteful spending. In his inauguration address and other speeches since January 20th, he has again and again struck the same notes of change, reform and fiscal responsibility.
Now, he has the perfect opportunity to make good on his words. Reform-minded Democrats and Republicans have exposed this especially smelly bit of old-style Washington politics and slowed down its enactment. By announcing that he would veto the bill unless it is stripped of earmarks, the President could guarantee that the House and Senate leadership would do just that and present him with a clean bill. They would have no choice, since they would not be able to muster the two thirds majorities of both Houses to override his veto. In any case, the Democrats would not have the stomach to engage in battle with a new, popular President of their own party.
President Obama would not only fulfill the spirit and letter of his campaign promises. He would gain enormous respect among voters and opinion makers across the political spectrum, opening up new opportunities for truly post-partisan cooperation on other, pressing issues. And not incidentally, it would be good policy -- good for the nation and good for all Americans.
So why did he say through aides that this is "old business" and do his best to duck the issue? Why won't he take a stand? Alas, the answer is that the old politics of Washington against which he campaigned to eloquently is alive and well. Key Congressional committee chairs and ranking members, along with many of their colleagues regard pork projects as theirs by right and will not part with them graciously. Obama may fear that the powerful on Capitol Hill will retaliate against him in many less-than-public ways if he screws them out of their earmarks.
No doubt some will try to do that. But did we not expect that Obama would at least try to rise above these political considerations and show some courage in "bringing change to Washington?" If he does, he will be able to count on even stronger popular support to offset any fallout among Congressional grandees. If he doesn't, he will fully deserve to face the consequences of further public disappointment and gathering opposition. It's up to him.
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