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Reporters Jump Senators For Perceived Earmark Hypocrisy

Watching journalists who think they've caught a politician in some hypocrisy can be a lot like watching a cat with a mouse.

It's hard not to be fascinated by how much a cat seems to enjoy tormenting the wide-eyed object of its attention. While riveting, it's usually not a very pretty sight.

That seemed the case on Capitol Hill Wednesday, when Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and John Thune of S. Dakota came to the Senate press gallery.

The senators came to criticize Senate Democrats for their just unveiled $1.25 trillion spending plan for the federal government's fiscal year 2011, which is already underway.

Among the objects of the senators' scorn were the earmarks, requests by lawmakers for money for particular projects, in the omnibus spending bill.

Said Thune:

The bill's loaded up with pork projects, and it shouldn't get a vote...  The bill contains pork projects for everything from salmon studies to improved grapes -- not that there's anything wrong with those things, but it shouldn't come at the expense of bankrupting the country.

After Cornyn made a few points about the spending bill representing the old way of doing business in Washington which voters rejected, the reporters unsheathed their claws.

REPORTER:  Senator Cornyn, the bill contains many earmarks that you requested.

SEN. CORNYN:  Pardon me?

REPORTER:  The bill contains many earmarks that you requested.  I mean,why are you opposing this bill when there are things that you called for in there?

SEN. CORNYN:  I intend to vote against those earmarks because I think the American people sent a message on November the 2nd saying they want a new way of operating in Washington.  And our Republican conference passed an earmark moratorium for the next two years, but it's pretty clear that the appropriators want to try to slip in earmarks for this year through this omnibus bill.

The cat and mouse game was just beginning. After a few more minutes on other issues, a reporter circled back to earmarks. This time it was Thune's turn.

REPORTER:  Senator Thune, I was just looking at the list of earmark requests that you made this year.  It adds up to over a hundred millions dollars.  Have you asked that those earmarks be removed... ?

SEN. THUNE:  I haven't asked that they be removed from it, but I'm going to vote against it, just like Senator Cornyn is.  And --

REPORTER: But why haven't you asked that they be removed?

SEN. THUNE:  Well, those projects were projects that were vetted.Those are projects that we -- I mean, I support those projects.  But I don't support this bill, nor do I support the process by which this bill was put together.  And as John said, most of us voted, Republicans did, at our conference on a resolution that we would not request earmarks.  So my way of expressing that is to vote against the legislation.

REPORTER: So why not ask that they be removed...?

SEN. THUNE:  Well, I -- we're going to -- we're going to try and vote this thing down.  I mean, I don't know how you -- how you get them out now other than amending the bill.  You know, the bill's infront of us.

Cornyn tried to shift the discussion to Sen. Harry Reid's procedural machinations, but the reporters weren't yet done with their favorite topic, if not of the day, of this particular news conference.

REPORTER:  Senator Cornyn, you both have complained about not -- another Republican has as well -- about not -- just getting to see the bill 24 hours ago, also about the earmarks.

Do you both plan to go through the entirety of the bill before you vote on it, to read the whole thing?  And we're talking about earmarks and -- all that sort of thing.

SEN. CORNYN:  Well, we're certainly in the process of doing that right now.  It's a -- it's a lengthy bill, 1,924 pages long, and we're going through it as others have, and discovering a lot of bad stuff in the bill.

REPORTER:  Senator --

REPORTER:  I would like to --

REPORTER:  Going through this bill, there's earmark after earmark fromthe (both ?) -- (inaudible), millions of dollars in earmarks from the two of you and from other senators.  How do you have any credbility on this?  Why do you have earmarks in yours?

SEN. CORNYN:  Because we're going to vote against the bill.  This is the wrong way to do business.  If people have concerns about what's in the bill, we ought to be given an opportunity to offer amendments to strip those out --

REPORTER:  So you --

SEN. CORNYN:  And I'm happy to have that process done.  But we heard the American people on November the 2nd.  Again, as Sen. Thune said, they don't want business as usual.  And this bill represents business as usual.  The Republican Conference voted for an earmark moratorium going forward.

Cornyn once again tried to change the subject. But the reporters were having none of it.

REPORTER: You're standing here and advocating for stripping these out when you both have requested them -- I mean, it appears like you're saying one thing, doing another.

Then another reporter jumped in.

REPORTER:  So were you wrong -- Senator, were you wrong when you putthese earmarks in before?

Clearly exasperated, Cornyn tried for what seemed like the tenth time, to get reporters to understand the big picture as he saw it.

SEN. CORNYN:  Carl, this is not just about earmarks. Earmarks are a symptom of wasteful Washington spending that the American people have said they want reformed.

We agree with them, and that's why we will vote against this bill.  But you're missing the story if you think it's just about earmarks.  This is about a flawed process of sweetheart deals cut behind closed doors, and a big bill, spending bill, dropped on the American people and on us on December the 14th, without adequate time to amend it and debate it and to reveal to the American people what is in it so they can cast their judgment.

So I think -- I think that's to me the context.  And we've said very clearly -- we voted for an earmark moratorium.  We will abide by that, and we will reject any earmarks requested by us or anyone else, because that's what the American people told us they want.

STAFF:  Thank you.  Thank you very much.

And with that the senators escaped, er, departed the press gallery to continue tending to the nation's business.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.