Budget bill earmarks millions for Indian Country
The $410 billion appropriations bill that cleared the Senate on Tuesday contains millions of dollars in tribal and Alaska Native earmarks, including some requested by lawmakers who didn't support the massive package.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a member of the Chickasaw Nation, sought money for a water project to benefit a new hospital built by his tribe and for the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City. The bill earmarks $785,000 for the two requests even though Cole voted against the bill when it passed the House on February 25.

Rep. Denny Rehberg R-Montana) also voted against the bill. But he requested, and received, $238,000 for the Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Reservation, just one of several of his earmarks to win approval.

On the Senate side, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) opposed further consideration of the bill when it came up for a vote yesterday. But the package includes $1.427 million she requested for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, $1.475 million for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation and $285,000 for the Cook Inlet Tribal Council.

Not all Republicans who sought earmarks opposed the package, however. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) supported millions of dollars in earmarks for Alaska Native programs and he was one of just 16 members of his party who voted for the Fiscal Year 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act that President Barack Obama is getting ready to sign.

Despite Obama's expected support, the new president is laying out some guidelines today on earmarks, whose presence has largely been a political problem for Republicans. Even some Democrats are questioning the billions of dollars in "pork" in the annual appropriations bills.

Obama too questioned the large number of earmarks in the bill, which funds nearly every single federal agency. "Although it's not perfect, the president will sign the legislation but demonstrate for all involved rules moving forward that he thinks can make this process work a little bit better," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said today.

After Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the two-time former chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, started his anti-earmark crusade a few years ago, tribal leaders were surprised to learn that some of their most cherished programs were in fact considered earmarks. Certain tribal colleges, for example, have survived due to special provisions in appropriations bills.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), another prominent member of the Indian Affairs Committee, has continued to rail against earmarks but neither political party is willing to give them up. He calls earmarks the "gateway drug" to "spending addiction" but his McCain-backed efforts to strip the bill of the projects were rejected earlier this week.

"Instead of draining the swamp, Congress is protecting the polluters," Coburn said this week.

FY 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act:
H.R.1105 | Text and Explanatory Statement | More Details

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Thune seeks more money for tribal law and health (3/4)
Omnibus bill includes reservation projects (2/24)