By Sam Youngman
As a lengthy battle over reopening the federal government and extending the debt ceiling came to an end Wednesday night, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Republican enemies seized on a provision included in the final deal they said was a betrayal of conservative causes.
The deal hammered out by McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid contained a $2.8 billion authorization for the Olmstead lock and dam project in Western Kentucky that at first glance appeared to many as McConnell sneaking pork into the last-minute bill.
While McConnell was the target, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said he asked for its inclusion.
An authorization does not mean the money will be ultimately approved or spent. The House and Senate would have to vote in the future to appropriate the money.
McConnell has long been a supporter of the Olmstead lock and dam project, but his Senate office said Wednesday night that the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development has “stated publicly that this was their request.”
Questions about McConnell’s involvement were referred to U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairwoman and ranking member of the subcommittee.
Alexander, in a statement, defended the inclusion, saying that the Army Corps of Engineers, the group that would receive the money if it’s appropriated, said that “160 million taxpayer dollars will be wasted because of canceled contracts if this language is not included.”
While Alexander claimed responsibility and the money is not actually being spent yet, at least two conservative groups put the blame on McConnell.
The Senate Conservatives Fund, a group that has not endorsed McConnell opponent Matt Bevin but has put Kentucky’s senior senator in its sights, called the provision a “Kentucky kickback.”
“Mitch McConnell is trying to blame others for this abuse, but everyone knows he negotiated this deal and everyone knows he wrote the bill,” said Matt Hoskins, the group’s executive director. “If he didn’t want the earmark included, he could have kept it out.”
“It appears that Sen. McConnell took advantage of his position to slip in this bit of parochial pork,” Stephen Ellis, Vice President of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said in an email. “While this could be considered business as usual, it is shocking that with the country teetering on the edge of default a lawmaker would try to pull a fast one on the American people.”