March 12, 2009 / 12:12 AM / 9 years ago

Obama signs big spending bill despite earmarks

<p>President Obama speaks at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce 19th Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, March 10, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing</p>

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed a $410 billion bill to fund most government operations through September 30, but warned the U.S. Congress must stop jamming spending bills with lawmakers’ pet projects.

“Let there be no doubt: this piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business, and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability,” Obama said in discussing his decision to sign the controversial measure.

“I am signing an imperfect ... bill because it’s necessary for the ongoing functions of government, and we have a lot more work to do. We can’t have Congress bogged down at this critical juncture in our economic recovery,” he said.

Obama outlined a plan that would enable lawmakers to continue to earmark spending with a “legitimate and worthy public purpose,” but would make the process more transparent and offer opportunities for public feedback before approval.

Arizona Senator John McCain, Obama’s Republican rival in the 2008 election and an outspoken critic of pet spending projects known as earmarks, dismissed Obama’s comments, calling them “his usual excellent rhetoric” but saying the message was “virtually meaningless” and “toothless.”

“What he should have done was say he was going to veto this bill, that he wanted the $8 billion in earmarks removed and then he would sign it,” McCain said.

Obama, who criticized earmarked spending during his presidential campaign, went behind closed doors to sign the $410 billion spending bill, which was approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress following a contentious debate.

The legislation, which will fund the departments of transportation, agriculture and others, was approved despite Republican objections to the price tag.

“In just 50 days, Congress has voted to spend about $1.2 trillion,” said Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate. “To put that in perspective, that’s about $24 billion a day, or about $1 billion an hour -- most of it borrowed.”

<p>U.S. President Barack Obama listens to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner (L) during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington March 11, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque</p>

BIGGER FIGHTS AHEAD

Debate on the spending bill, at times full of bitter partisan rancor over provisions to roll back parts of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, foreshadowed bigger fights over Obama’s $3.55 trillion 2010 budget and overhauling healthcare, which Congress will address in the coming weeks.

Many Republicans fought against the bill because it raised government spending by 8 percent above fiscal 2008 levels. They said it added more money to programs already funded by the $787 billion economic stimulus package approved last month.

<p>President Barack Obama (R) speaks after receiving his economic daily briefing with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (L) in Washington March 11, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque</p>

Republicans in Congress ramped up their criticisms of the budget on Wednesday, and warned they would offer their own alternatives.

Representative Mike Pence, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, told reporters, “In coming days ... we will be laying out on the House side Republican ideas and proposals for a responsible, pro-growth budget.”

Pence, who has sought to cut federal spending on domestic programs, said a key component of the Republican alternative would be more tax cuts for working families, small businesses and family farmers” to ignite economic growth.

Obama said he believed future legislation could include reforms to make the budget process more transparent and trustworthy and rein in the use of earmarks.

“I believe as we move forward, we can come together around principles that prevent the abuse of earmarks,” he said.

“These principles begin with a simple concept: earmarks must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose,” Obama added.

House Democratic leaders announced two new measures to change the way earmarks are used. A 20-day review by the executive branch would be required, and they supported competitive bidding for earmarks for for-profit companies.

Additional reporting by John Whitesides, Steve Holland and Richard Cowan; Editing by Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman

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