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Back to the future in the battle over earmarks

  • Story Highlights
  • President signs $410 billion spending bill loaded with earmarks
  • Sen. John McCain says this is an "opportunity missed" for the president
  • Obama pledged to crack down on earmarks during 2008 campaign
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By Paul Steinhauser
CNN Deputy Political Director
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- If you paid any attention to last year's presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain's stinging attack Wednesday on President Obama over earmarks probably sounded familiar.

President Obama signed a $410 billion spending bill despite criticism that it contained wasteful spending.

President Obama signed a $410 billion spending bill despite criticism that it contained wasteful spending.

Just minutes after the president called for reform of the much-maligned federal earmarking process by having Congress and the White House embrace a new set of guiding principles, his one-time presidential opponent took aim at his comments.

"The president's rhetoric is impressive, but his statement affirms we will continue to do business as usual in Washington regarding earmarks in appropriations legislation," McCain said in a statement Wednesday. "The president could have resolved this issue in one statement -- no more unauthorized pork barrel projects -- and pledged to use his veto pen to stop them. This is an opportunity missed."

On Tuesday, the Senate passed a $410 billion spending bill for the remainder of this fiscal year. The bill includes nearly 9,000 earmarks, in which funding is designated for particular projects, often at the request of individual lawmakers, to benefit their state or district.

Obama said Wednesday that he would sign the current spending bill but that future earmarks should "have a legitimate and worthy purpose." Video Watch more on the controversy surrounding the spending bill »

It's language that could have been cribbed from any of McCain's fall stump speeches.

"I'm going to make government live on a budget just like you do, and I promise you this: I will veto every single pork barrel bill that comes across my desk," McCain said on the campaign trail the day before the election.

"I will make them famous. You will know their names. I will make them famous. Don't think that earmarking isn't a corrupting influence. It is. My friends, we are going to clean up the mess in Washington."

It's a message he used quite often during the closing months of the battle for the White House.

The two candidates clashed over earmarks in the first presidential debate in Mississippi and again in the third and final debate in upstate New York.

"Sen. Obama has asked for nearly $1 billion in pork barrel earmark projects, including $3 million for an overhead projector in a planetarium in his home town. We'll cut out all the pork," said McCain at the debate in Hofstra, New York, on October 15.

Obama dismissed that charge as campaign posturing.

"Sen. McCain talks a lot about earmarks. That's one of the centerpieces of his campaign," he responded. "Earmarks account for one-half of 1 percent of the total budget. There's no doubt the financial budget needs reform, but it's not going to solve the problem."

As Democratic presidential nominee, Obama never joined his Republican opponent in calling for a complete ban on all earmarks, calling instead for reform of the process.

"We're going to have to fundamentally change how our appropriations process works," Obama told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on October 30.

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But the battle over earmarks wasn't a major factor this cycle. If it were, McCain might be sitting in the White House right now.

"Polls indicate that Americans don't like earmarks and would support a ban on them," CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said. "But McCain's attack on earmarks didn't change the perception that Obama was going to bring change to the country, and McCain and Obama were seen as equally able to stand up to special interests."

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