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Congress scoffs at Obama's plan to trim 'pork' spending

A White House plan released Monday would give the president more power to cut 'pork' spending. But Congress controls the federal purse strings jealously.

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Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, says he has no intention of ceding 'the congressional power of the purse' to the president. He is pictured here in this Oct. 14, 2009, photo.

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In an era of trillion-dollar federal deficits, is it possible for members of Congress to oppose a White House proposal to cut “unnecessary spending”? You betcha!

Congress in recent years has let slide many of its powers – from punting big investigations to outside commissions to signing a blank check for President Bush to use force after the 9/11 attacks. But Article I congressional spending powers are clutched tight, especially by those lawmakers who have won seats on the A-list Appropriations Committees.

Inside the Beltway, he who holds the purse strings holds the power, and key Democrats are giving no indication that they are ready to yield to President Obama this precious pearl of lawmaking.

“I have long defended the congressional power of the purse, and, as chairman of the Appropriations Committee I have no intention of ceding that authority to the executive branch,” said Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, in a statement on Monday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has done the heavy lifting for most of Mr. Obama’s domestic agenda, is not out in front on this one. In a statement, she said that she “looked forward to reviewing the president’s proposal.”

"She wants an opportunity to hear from members of the caucus and talk to others in the administration,” says spokesman Nadeam Elshami. “We just received the proposal today.”

That proposal, released Monday, boils down to this: Within two months after the president has signed appropriations bills into law, the White House can opt to give Congress a second chance to vote down a list of projects in that fiscal year’s spending bills that the White House deems wasteful. Congress must vote this package of rescissions up or down in its entirety, by a simple majority vote.

Budget watchdog groups hailed the proposal as an important first step to reining in unsustainable federal spending.

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“It is just another tool that can help Congress help themselves,” says Steve Ellis, vice president of programs for Taxpayers for Common Sense, noting that members often wind up voting for projects they don’t like in vast spending bills.

This so-called expedited rescission bill gives lawmakers a second shot at eliminating these projects. In FY 2010, Congress included 9,499 member projects, adding up to $15.9 billion.

“This step by the White House puts more responsibility on the president to say, 'I will take wasteful dollars out of the budget.' It can build trust,” says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

“The challenges we face now are so great that it’s going to have to be done in a series of steps. Before you can turn to Social Security and taxes, you have to hit these trustbusters, like earmarks,” she adds. “Every normal taxpayer says, ‘Why should I be part of the solution when Washington is still broken?’ ”

In fact, presidents now have the power to propose rescissions, but no president has used it since 2000 because the process is so unpopular with Congress. The last time a president requested rescissions – three worth $128 million in 2000 – none of them was accepted.

Several times, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona has proposed giving the president the expedited-rescissions powers under discussion now, but Obama and the Democrats rejected it.

“The president would have this authority already if he and members of his administration hadn’t blocked similar legislation when they served in the Senate,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, referring to a filibuster of the McCain proposal.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, who spoke for six straight hours in opposition to a GOP proposal to give President George H.W. Bush a presidential line-item veto in 1992, says he will oppose a "power grab" by a Democratic president as well.

"The elected representatives of the people know a lot better than any bureaucrat in Washington as to what our spending priorities should be. Not only would these rescission decisions be those of unelected bureaucrats – with no transparency or accountability, they would allow the White House to leave intact its own spending priorities,” he said.

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