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GOP freshmen find pet projects to put forward

Despite calls to halt defense-bill earmarks, some members now face demands of their districts.

WASHINGTON - Hard-charging Republicans who rallied voters last year with cries of "Stop the spending, ban the earmarks" are quietly offering a more familiar Washington refrain now that they're in Congress - not in my backyard.

The $553 billion bill providing a budget for the Pentagon boasts millions of dollars that President Obama did not request for weapons programs, installations, and other projects in districts from Illinois to Mississippi represented by House GOP freshmen. The additions look suspiciously like the projects that Republicans prohibited when they took over the House and that the new class of lawmakers, many with tea party backing, swore off in a vow to change Washington.

Heated campaign talk of reining in spending and barring earmarks often cools once candidates get to Congress and face the demands of their districts.

The House has begun work on the bill with hopes of a vote by the end of the week. Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee insist the additions are not earmarks. Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.) said firmly in March that he would not permit them, and each addition carries a disclaimer that says a decision to spend these budgetary requests must be based on competition or merit.

"At the end of the day, the Pentagon still has the power," said Josh Holly, a spokesman for the GOP-controlled committee.

Proud statements that Republican freshmen churned out within hours of the committee's vote this month suggest otherwise.

For example, a provision added to Obama's budget request would provide $2.5 million for weapons and advanced technology, money for the Quad City Manufacturing Lab at the Rock Island Arsenal in freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling's Illinois district. The lab conducts research and development on titanium, lightweight composites, and other advanced materials.

"Through this legislation, we were able to pave the way for more public-private partnerships . . . that will increase the workload, keep skills sharp and promote jobs," said Schilling, who was born and raised in Rock Island.

During his 2010 campaign against Democratic Rep. Phil Hare, the tea party-backed, pizza-business owner Schilling ran as a fiscal conservative and railed against Hare's earmarking. "Earmark reform that forces lawmakers to be more transparent is critical to weeding out corruption and waste," Schilling wrote in an op-ed piece in October. "Programs should only pass if they have merit and can stand on their own."

The committee approved Schilling's provision as part of a package of 19 amendments with little or no debate and no separate vote during 16 hours of deliberations. Questioned about the provision, Schilling's press secretary, Andie Pivarunas, said the committee process "has been transparent, and the Army will decide where this budget funding goes on a competitive or merit-based basis."

Laura Peterson, national security analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the group was analyzing the defense bill to determine whether the committee made good on its promise to prohibit earmarks, but she did see "bells, whistles, and worse" that were tacked on. "Just because the process is more transparent doesn't mean the initiative behind every congressional add is completely selfless," she said.