By Dana Milbank
The United States Senate yesterday was confronted with a stark choice: health care for children, or pet projects for lawmakers' home states.
The final tally? Pet Projects 68, Kids 26.
In truth, the children never had a chance. "I predicted 24," the measure's sponsor, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said cheerfully after his defeat.
It was, Coburn's many opponents grumbled, a political stunt. But, as stunts go, this one was particularly revealing. The Oklahoma physician, a foe of the unhealthy cut of congressional pork known as "earmarks," proposed an amendment to a major health spending bill that said no lawmakers' pet projects would be funded until "all children in the U.S. under the age of 18 years are insured by a private or public health insurance plan."
Among the earmarks this jeopardized:
* $130,000 for the National First Ladies' Library in Ohio.
* $500,000 for a "Virtual Herbarium" in New York.
* $400,000 for the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa.
* $100,000 to celebrate Lake Champlain's quadricentennial.
* $500,000 for "field experiences" on the Chesapeake Bay.
* $50,000 for an ice center in Utah.
"What this amendment is about is asking the Senate to choose," Coburn informed his colleagues on the Senate floor. "Choose your directed earmarks for back home, or make a statement that says we really believe kids' health care is important."
The senators considered this, then went with the herbarium and the lake party. Only two Democrats -- Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Claire McCaskill of Missouri -- joined Coburn, and fully half of his Republican colleagues turned against him. Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and John McCain skipped the vote for the presidential hustings.
In a sense, the 9.5 million kids without health coverage shouldn't feel too bad about the vote. When Coburn proposed a similar amendment to the transportation bill -- blocking earmarks until all "structurally deficient" bridges were repaired -- he got only 14 votes.
But lawmakers on both sides have clearly grown weary of Coburn's efforts to embarrass them; just last week, he irked New York's senators when he succeeded in killing a $1 million earmark for a museum dedicated to the 1969 Woodstock concert.
"I assume this comes as no surprise that I oppose the amendment," declared Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Figge Art Museum). "I don't think this amendment is really serious about addressing the health of children."
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Berks County Music Education), author of 166 earmarks in the spending bill, agreed with the senator from the Figge Art Museum. "Senators know their states better than the bureaucrats," Specter argued.
A spokesman for Sen. George Voinovich (R-First Ladies Library) protested that "this is a backdoor way of banning earmarks which he doesn't agree with." A spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Lake Champlain) called Coburn's activities "highly questionable and highly selective."
More than one lawmaker complained that if Coburn were truly concerned about children's health care, he would have supported an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which President Bush vetoed. "Maybe a vote for the Coburn amendment could be a cover for those who oppose the SCHIP bill," Harkin theorized on the Senate floor. "Perhaps more and more people are finding out a vote against the SCHIP bill was not a popular vote as we hear back from our communities and states."
Perhaps, but yesterday it was Coburn's turn to force colleagues to make an unpopular vote -- defending $400 million in earmarks instead of using the money to buy health insurance for 173,000 children.
"It seems to me the American public might want to ask why are you earmarking special money for special projects when you have a chance to make sure it will go towards children and really solving the problem?" Coburn taunted. "So this is going to be a tough vote. Kids versus my political career. Kids versus my political power. Kids versus my political earmarks. We're going to see. We're going to get to see what the real priorities of the Senate are."
The senators did their best to ignore Coburn -- literally. While the enemy of earmarks made his closing argument, his colleagues busied themselves in noisy conversations on the Senate floor.
Over the din, Coburn pointed out that 3.6 million children "have not been covered for a year."
"The Senate will come to order!" demanded the presiding officer, Bob Casey (D-Pa.). "The senator has a right to be heard."
The conversations continued. "So this amendment simply states," Coburn argued, that no earmarks would be funded until we've "done our job in terms of caring for our kids."
"Mr. President, I ask the Senate please be called to order," Harkin said, coming to his opponent's rescue.
"The Senate will come to order," Casey repeated, ineffectually.
"We cannot hear the senator from Oklahoma," Harkin repeated.
Casey tapped the gavel. "Take your conversations out of the Senate. That includes the staff."
Only when Coburn finished and his opponents had the floor did the place regain the quiet of a virtual herbarium.