WASHINGTON - President Bush threatened yesterday to cancel thousands of pet projects that Congress inserted into a massive spending bill before leaving town this week.
If he carries through on the threat, he could provoke a fierce battle with lawmakers in both parties who jealously guard their ability to steer money to favored purposes.
At an end-of-the-year news conference, Bush chastised Democratic leaders of Congress for failing to live up to their campaign promise to curb so-called earmarks and said he has ordered his budget director "to review options for dealing with the wasteful spending in the omnibus bill."
Aides later said those options would include simply disregarding earmarks not included in binding legislative language.
The warning came during an expansive 48-minute session that Bush used to frame the legislative results of 2007 as a victory for his priorities.
The session covered a range of issues, from climate change to counterterrorism to the Middle East. But Bush resisted being drawn into two of the hottest topics of the day, the campaign to succeed him and the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes.
His sharp message on earmarks, though, stirred consternation on Capitol Hill and excitement among fiscal conservatives.
He called Congress irresponsible for lumping 11 spending bills into a single, 1,400-page measure nearly three months into the fiscal year.
"Another thing that's not responsible is the number of earmarks that Congress included," he said. Congress "made some progress" curbing pet projects, he said, but not enough.
Bush said he asked Jim Nussle, director of the Office of Management and Budget, to present him with possible actions to take, although he would not elaborate.
One option, aides said, would be to ignore most of the earmarks that are included only in conference reports rather than in the appropriations bill itself. Although traditionally honored, language in such reports is not legally binding.
"There's always been an opportunity for the president to issue an executive order essentially canceling most of the earmarks," said Brian Riedl, a Heritage Foundation scholar who issued a memo outlining ways to do that.
Critics complain earmarks are a way to funnel money to projects or organizations without a review of the merits.
Another option Bush aides said they were reviewing is interpreting vaguely worded earmarks differently from what their sponsors intended.
"Certainly those are all options and there are probably some more options," said OMB spokesman Sean Kevelighan. But he cautioned that Bush would not necessarily follow through on them. Nussle will "make some recommendations and those recommendations may or may not entail taking some action."
According to a preliminary count by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that fights earmarks, the giant spending bill sent to Bush included 8,983 earmarked projects worth $7.4 billion.
A separate Defense Department spending bill signed by Bush included an additional 2,162 earmarks worth $7.9 billion.
That brings the total to 11,145 earmarks worth $15.3 billion, although the group is still counting and the number will probably rise.
Still, when the counting is done, this year's earmarks will probably be about 25 percent less costly than the all-time high in 2005, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
"From our perspective, it's a step in the right direction," he said.
Bush would not be the first president to try to cancel earmarks. James C. Miller III, budget director under Ronald Reagan, instructed agencies in 1987 not to honor earmarks in conference reports.
But, as he wrote in the Washington Times last year, "all hell broke loose" and Reagan "was distracted by the Iran-contra scandal and couldn't help. I gave up."
The demise of the bridge to nowhere notwithstanding, Sen. Ted Stevens and other Republicans remain the kings of pork-barrel spending, proving that GOP mastery of "earmarks" can withstand public scorn, a president's rebuke and even a Democratic takeover of Congress.
The Senate's two biggest sponsors of this year's pet spending projects are Republicans Stevens of Alaska and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, according to preliminary reviews of fiscal 2008 spending bills by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group.
Two of the House's three biggest claimants of earmarks also are Republicans: Bill Young of Florida and Jerry Lewis of California, the group found. The third is Democrat John Murtha of Pennsylvania.
The Republicans' continued success at steering billions of taxpayer dollars to their constituents is all the more impressive - or arguably hypocritical - since President Bush and other prominent Republicans sharpened their criticisms of earmarks after Democrats took over Congress in January.
- Associated Press