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Did Kyl get earmark? Some say yes

The Republican senator put $200 million for an Arizona tribe's water claim into a larger bill.

WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans' ban on earmarks - money included in a bill by a lawmaker to benefit a home-state project or interest - was short-lived.

Only three days after GOP senators and senators-elect renounced earmarks, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican, got $200 million to settle an Arizona Indian tribe's water-rights claim against the federal government.

Kyl slipped the measure into a larger bill sought by President Obama and passed by the Senate on Friday to settle claims by black farmers and American Indians against the government. Kyl's office insists that the measure is not an earmark, and the House didn't deem it one when it considered a version earlier this year.

But critics say it meets the know-it-when-you-see-it test. Under Senate rules, an earmark is a spending item inserted "primarily at the request of a senator" that goes "to an entity, or [is] targeted to a specific state."

Earmarking allows lawmakers to steer federal spending to pet projects in their states and districts. Earmarks take many forms, including road projects, improvements to home-district military bases, sewer projects, and economic-development projects. A key trait is that they are projects that haven't been sought by the administration in power.


Money for the 15,000-member White Mountain Apache Tribe was one of four tribal water-rights claims totaling almost $570 million added to the $5 billion-plus bill. Black farmers will get about $1.2 billion to settle claims that the Agriculture Department's local offices discriminated against them in awarding loans and other aid. And $3.4 billion goes to American Indians who say the Interior Department swindled them out of oil, gas, and other royalties.

The House still has to act on the total package, and probably will after Congress reconvenes Monday.

Sens. Max Baucus (D., Mont.) and Jeff Bingaman (D., N.M.) also added measures benefiting their states to the settlements, obtaining almost $370 million for projects in Montana and New Mexico to settle water claims.

Baucus and Bingaman make no bones about their support for earmarks, but Kyl is a recent convert to the anti-earmark crusade of his home-state GOP colleague, Sen. John McCain, who has railed against them for years. Interior sought only $56 million for Indian land and water claims in Obama's proposed budget for this year and no money for Kyl's project, or those Baucus and Bingaman wanted.

'This, my friends ...'

The $200 million in Kyl's measure would be used to construct and maintain a drinking-water project on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, including a dam, reservoir, and treatment plant.

The water system is settlement compensation for numerous abuses by the government, which included clearing trees and other vegetation from thousands of acres of tribal lands to increase runoff into the Salt River, a source of water for Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, and other communities.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D., Vt.) pointed out that the project is going to a state whose GOP lawmakers claim to oppose earmarks.

"I do know an earmark when I see it," Leahy said in a prepared floor statement. "And this, my friends, is an earmark." He said Kyl's project would help the White Mountain Apaches "make snow at their ski resort, improve water flow to their casino and build fish hatcheries to improve local fish production."

Those projects don't appear to be directly funded by the bill, though its wording is confusing. There is no question, however, that the measure is vitally important to Arizona, where water is a scarce and precious resource.

"It addresses a fundamental need on the White Mountain Apache Reservation and provides certainty to the tribe, to Phoenix, and to other water users" in the area, said Michael Conner, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation and a former top aide to Bingaman.

Kyl's office declined a request for an interview with the senator.

The costs of the water-claims settlements will be offset by cuts to other government programs, including $562 million in overbudgeted 2010 funding for the federal nutrition program for women, infants, and children. Either way, the government is on the hook to settle the water claims or risk larger losses in court.