WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the U.S. Congress, trying to appear frugal with taxpayer dollars this election year, found on Wednesday that some in their own ranks topped a list of "pork" spenders in a watchdog group's analysis of government waste.
The annual survey by Citizens Against Government Waste claims that 11,610 special-interest projects were stuffed into spending bills approved by the Democratic-led Congress last year at a $17.2 billion cost to taxpayers.
But according to the survey, it was individual Republicans who pushed the most "pork" last year. In addition, the three House of Representative Republicans who sponsored legislation calling for a moratorium on such spending all engaged in the practice, the report said. They are Jack Kingston of Georgia, Zach Wamp of Tennessee and Frank Wolf of Virginia.
For months, House Republican Leader John Boehner has been leading a crusade against such projects, known as "earmarks," which routinely benefit lawmakers' hometown districts.
Boehner, of Ohio, has called for suspending "pork" spending this year and has criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, for not yet agreeing to do so.
On Tuesday, House Republicans tried and failed to advance their earmark moratorium. Last month, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected a similar proposal.
House Republicans have attacked Democratic Rep. John Murtha for delivering a pile of special-interest funds to his western Pennsylvania district.
But according to the report, two House Republicans bested Murtha: Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who recently became a U.S. senator, and Rep. Bill Young of Florida. The two scored $176.3 million and $169.5 million in earmarks respectively, beating Murtha's $159.1 million.
'BRIDGE TO NOWHERE'
In the Senate, the top three spenders were Republicans, who together scored about $1.8 billion in home-state projects. Those senators are Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Ted Stevens of Alaska, who was roundly criticized a few years back for winning approval of a "bridge to nowhere," and has been reported to be the target of a federal corruption probe.
All the top spenders are members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, which dole out federal dollars.
Opponents of the special-interest projects argue that they do not receive adequate oversight by Congress and often are inserted into legislation at the last minute.
Many lawmakers who back earmarks say they help deliver jobs and public works projects to hometowns. They also point out that the funds represent less than 1 percent of federal spending and that reforming other parts of the budget would be more meaningful.
Suspected earmark abuse has led to some reforms, including making the spending more open to public and congressional scrutiny.
Among the "pork" outlined in the watchdog group's latest report:
--$123,050 secured by Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, for a Mother's Day shrine;
--$3 million by House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, for The First Tee, which aims to promote the game of golf among young people. The money was inserted into a military spending bill;
--$188,000 by Maine's Republican senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Democratic Rep. Thomas Allen to help the Lobster Institute, which the report said is working on a "Lobster Cam" and developing lobster dog biscuits.
As for the three U.S. senators running for president: Republican John McCain had no earmarks last year, while Democrats Hillary Clinton delivered 281 projects to her home state of New York, costing $296.2 million, and Barack Obama had 53 projects totaling $97.4 million.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)