Senate to vote on moving earmark money to kids' health

Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., on Friday offered an amendment to withhold funding for the roughly $400 million in senators' earmarks contained in the $150 billion fiscal 2008 Labor-Health and Human Services spending bill until the HHS secretary certifies that all eligible children under 18 are receiving health coverage.

The move was mostly symbolic, aiming to put senators on the spot when the vote occurs on the amendment, perhaps Monday. "This amendment is going to be a fun vote," Coburn said. "Kids vs. my political earmarks ... we're going to begin to see what the real priorities of the Senate are."

Coburn singled out one state's $72 million in earmarks, alluding to the home state of Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, although Coburn did not say so. Coburn argued that sum could cover all of the state's uninsured children.

Burr himself requested several earmarks in the bill totaling $750,000, mostly joint requests with Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. "I've got some in this bill; I'd give them up as long as I knew they were going somewhere they could do some good," Burr said.

In response, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., came to the floor and argued if the Republicans cared about insuring poor children, they would have voted for the $35 billion State Children's Health Insurance Program legislation that President Bush vetoed because it was too costly.

Dorgan noted that earmarks are a "very, very small percentage" of the bill and that "the rest of it goes downtown to some agency." He noted that "the power of the purse rests with the United States Congress" and that earmarks have significant value.

He said the Human Genome Project, which he called "an unbelievable success story," originated with a Senate-proposed earmark.

"It didn't come from some decision from a GS-13 or GS-15 at some agency," Dorgan said. "There are some good ideas coming from the Congress and they have for a long time."

It began as a $5.3 million Energy Department pilot project in 1986, with funding later expanded to the National Institutes of Health. By fiscal 2003, the Human Genome Project was funded at a combined $437 million, according to the Energy Department.

Harkin said there might be late votes Monday, and Reid said a vote on final passage is possible Tuesday.

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