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'Kentucky kickback': an issue for Mitch McConnell or just friendly fire?

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

(Read caption) Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky arrives at the Capitol on Oct. 16, just before striking a deal with majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada to reopen the government. The deal also authorized $2.9 billion for a dam project in Kentucky that sparked controversy.

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Here’s what’s known about the so-called “Kentucky kickback,” a controversy that blew up just as Senate leaders were signing off on a deal to end a government shutdown and avert default on the national debt.

While the Senate had held out for a "clean" bill to fund government in its standoff with the House, the deal that Senate leaders took to the floor on Wednesday included an obscure, one-line change to an unrelated law that increased authorization for spending on a massive water project in Kentucky, the home state of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

It didn't spend $3 billion, as critics quickly charged. It authorized a new cap of $2.9 billion for a project that had already spent well beyond the $775 million level authorized by law. (More on that later.) Nor was it, technically, a banned spending "earmark." But it smelled bad. Conservative critics, who viewed the Senate deal as a sellout and Senator McConnell as the traitor, dubbed it the "Kentucky kickback." [Editor's note: In the original version, the number in this paragraph was incorrect.]

Pork projects, or member earmarks on spending bills, were once common practice in Washington. After Republicans took back control of the House in 1995, pork projects soared – peaking at $29 billion in 2006, the year the GOP lost control of the House after scandals involving bribes for earmarks. In 2010, a new GOP majority banned the practice, and the Senate followed suit.

What makes earmarks toxic is the appearance of special favors for the powerful, drawn up in secret, and not vetted by any government agency or subject to competition from other projects.

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