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Originally published Friday, October 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Senators clash over "Bridge to Nowhere"

Republicans in Congress say they are serious about cutting spending, but they learned yesterday to keep their hands off the "Bridge to Nowhere...

WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress say they are serious about cutting spending, but they learned yesterday to keep their hands off the "Bridge to Nowhere."

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a staunch opponent of pork-barrel spending, tried to block $453 million for two Alaska bridges that had been tucked into the recent highway spending bill. Coburn wanted to redirect the money to the Interstate 10 bridge across Lake Pontchartrain, a major thoroughfare that was severely damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was dramatic in his response: "I don't kid people," he roared. "If the Senate decides to discriminate against our state ... I will resign from this body."

Coburn's measure, offered as an amendment to the 2006 transportation appropriations bill, failed 82 to 15. Senators also turned down a Stevens counterproposal to hold up spending for all bridges around the country until the Louisiana bridge is funded, by 61-33.

Spending-bill debate

The showdown occurred during debate over a $141 billion bill to fund transportation, housing, Treasury Department and other programs. The spending bill passed 93-1.

Although the Coburn amendment lost, it struck a chord among lawmakers as they face increasing belt-tightening pressure. Katrina and the war in Iraq have created billions in unexpected expenses, and lawmakers would like to trim other programs to offset the cost. But yesterday's debate showed even an obscure budget item has its patrons.

One of the Alaska bridges, dubbed the "Bridge to Nowhere" by its critics, would connect Ketchikan to an island where there is an airport and about 50 people. It received $223 million in the highway bill that Congress passed during the summer. The second bridge, called "Don Young's Way" in honor of its patron, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, received about $230 million — as a down payment on a cost that could hit $1.5 billion.

Coburn had wanted to shift all the money to the I-10 rebuilding project, which is expected to cost $500 million to $600 million.

"I believe that we should spend taxpayer dollars where they are most needed," Coburn wrote fellow senators asking for support.

But in the tradition-bound Senate, freshman Coburn was taking on an unwritten rule that one senator does not attack projects sought by another.

"I've been here now almost 37 years," Stevens said. "This is the first time I have seen any attempt of any senator to treat my state in a way different from any other state."

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The amendment became a cause célèbre among watchdog and conservative groups, which reported updates on their Web sites throughout the day. The Club for Growth alerted readers early yesterday on its blog: "As of last night, the opposition is putting up a big fight. They sense this amendment, if successful, as establishing a precedent. A precedent where all pork is vulnerable and no lawmaker is safe."

"Embarrassment"

Later in the day, the Heritage Foundation circulated a paper, "The Bridge to Nowhere: A National Embarrassment," and noted, "fiscally responsible members of Congress should be eager to zero out its funding."

Many Alaskans appear to support forfeiting the bridge money for hurricane relief. "This money, a gift from the people of Alaska, will represent more than just material aid; it will be a symbol for our beleaguered democracy," reads a typical letter to the Anchorage Daily News.

Young, who made sure his state was one of the top recipients in the highway bill, was asked by an Alaska reporter what he made of the public support for redirecting the bridge money.

"They can kiss my ear! That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard," he replied.

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