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Flap over pet projects roils GOP

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Remember Alaska's "bridge to nowhere"? It's about to be topped by what critics call Mississippi's "railroad to nowhere," which is quickly becoming the poster child for excessive spending by the Republican-controlled Congress.

The project, which was added to a $106.5 billion emergency defense spending bill in the Senate, would relocate a Gulf Coast rail line inland, to higher ground. Never mind that the hurricane-battered line was just repaired at a cost of at least $250 million. Or that at $700 million, the project championed by Mississippi's two US senators is being called the largest "earmark" ever.

The controversy points to a deepening split in the GOP over whether to rein in spending in the face of wartime commitments and record deficits - and whether failing to do so threatens their majority in this fall's midterm elections.

Its sponsors say the motive is evacuation and safety. "Along the Coast, we too often seen motorists and pedestrians killed on the rails that have run parallel to our shores for more than a century," wrote Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi in the Sun Herald newspaper Monday. Mississippi's senior senator, Thad Cochran, chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee, which drafted the bill.

But critics say it's also a bid to open land for developers to turn Mississippi's struggling Gulf Coast into Las Vegas South - and that emergency federal spending shouldn't pay for it, especially when Washington is on track to spend $371 billion into the red.

"There's never been a single earmark anywhere near $700 million," says Ronald Utt, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. Tuesday he released a report, "Deadly Sin: Larding up Emergency Appropriations," which details the CSX freight line relocation plan. "That's more than twice the size of the [$223 million] bridge to nowhere."

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