September 29, 2009 / 9:04 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. Senate debates earmarks in defense bill

WASHINGTON, Sept 29 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate began debate on Tuesday on a $636 billion defense spending bill that critics say is too laden with special-interest projects and other unnecessary measures the Pentagon does not want.

The debate highlights the difficulty of keeping spending in check as the federal government racks up record budget deficits.

Lawmakers have fought to continue weapons systems that the Pentagon has tried to cancel and earmarked $2.7 billion for projects in their home districts — everything from a World War Two museum to a civic-education center named for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Despite the additional spending, President Barack Obama is not expected to veto the defense bill because lawmakers have stripped out funding for many other weapons programs the Pentagon did not request.

“Some of the most egregious spending on behalf of the administration was and is addressed,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

One of 12 bills that funds the federal government for the fiscal year that starts on Thursday, Oct. 1, the Senate’s version actually contains $3.9 billion less than requested by the administration, in part by cutting $3 billion for operations and maintenance.

The bill contains 10 percent fewer earmarks, measured by dollar amount, than last year’s version.

But it adds $2.5 billion to build 10 C-17 cargo planes, though the Air Force does not want any more of the Boeing Co (BA.N) -built military freighters, a measure that Republican Senator John McCain called wasteful.

The new C-17s are needed to replace older transport planes and ensure that the production line is not shut down permanently, said Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye, who chairs the committee that oversees spending.

Earmarks account for less than 1 percent of the federal budget, but have served as a lightning rod for those concerned with runaway spending.

“They have become a proxy budgeting system that really perpetuates the pay-to-play culture of Washington,” said Laura Peterson, an analyst with the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

After a series of scandals in which earmarks figured prominently, lawmakers now must make their requests public.

The bill contains at least $178 million in earmarks requested by Inouye. The top Republican on that panel, Thad Cochran, has the second largest tally, at $163 million.

Inouye said in a statement that many of his earmarks were going to small businesses that do not have the resources to compete for the government’s business.

The Senate will not finish work on its spending bills before the start of the new fiscal year and is expected to pass a temporary-spending bill Wednesday to avoid a messy government shutdown.

Additional reporting by Steve Holland, editing by Philip Barbara

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