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Senators seek to make earmarks harder to get

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill on Wednesday to make it harder to slip money for hometown projects into legislation.

The measure would rein in the time-honored congressional practice known as earmarks that allows millions of dollars to be spent with little or no scrutiny.

"When you sneak something in . . . you undermine the trust" in Congress, said Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican.

"The only people who know are a handful of staff members and the lobbyists," added Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin joined them at a news conference. Another co-sponsor, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, didn't attend.

The foursome praised President-elect Barack Obama for pledging to keep his expected economic stimulus package free of earmarks.

Noting the dire state of the economy — "a shambles," McCain said — they bemoaned some recent examples, such as the $188,000 that went to the Lobster Institute in Maine, or the $150,000 to the Montana Sheep Institute.

"We simply can't afford it," McCain said. "We can ridicule it. But we are saddened by it. At least some members don't recognize the serious situation we're in."

Their bill would amend Senate rules to allow members to challenge unauthorized spending in appropriations bill and conference reports by raising points of order.

The appropriations bills and conference reports — compromise legislation between the House of Representatives and the Senate — would have to be electronically searchable at least two days before consideration.

Recipients of federal funds also would have to disclose any amounts they spend on federal lobbyists.

While the lawmakers noted that their efforts would make the earmark process more transparent, "our goal is not transparency," McCain said. "Our goal is the elimination of earmarks."

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