Tucked into the Senate bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling is a little something else: $2.9 billion in funding for a dam project on the Kentucky-Illinois border, which GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has requested money for in the past.
The law funds the Olmsted dam and lock project with $2.918 billion, according to the bill text. Started more than 20 years ago, the project is woefully behind schedule and over budget.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, head of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the project, and ranking member GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander had greenlighted the provision. "It's a project to serve the public good, and you would have to shut it down if it didn't get funded," Feinstein told reporters on Wednesday night, adding that "there's no objection to it anywhere."
Alexander said that both chambers had previously approved funding the project, but in separate bills that prevented the measure from passing into law. He added that failing to approve the funding would cost the government money. "According to the Army Corps of Engineers, $160 million taxpayer dollars will be wasted because of canceled contracts if this language is not included," he said in a statement.
McConnell's spokesman said the minority leader had not pushed for the provision to be included. "Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Alexander have publicly stated that the project was through their subcommittee," said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. The minority leader had requested more than $200 million in funding for the Olmsted project in 2008 and 2009 before Congress voted to ban earmarks.
Minutes before stepping on the Senate floor, not all senators were aware that the provision was in the bill they were about to vote on—including the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski. "I don't know anything about it," she told MSNBC on Wednesday night on her way to the vote. When asked what she thought of the funding being included at the last minute, she replied: "I'd have to look at the project and see if it's an earmark. Therefore the parliamentarian will deal with it, but I don't know unless I see it in writing."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid defended the provision, denying that it was pork-barrel spending. "This is not an earmark. It saves the taxpayer lots of money," he said on Wednesday night. "There's no need to point fingers at anyone."
But not all legislators were pleased about the last-minute provisions that were included. In addition to the Olmsted dam funding, the bill also included money for wildfire prevention, Colorado emergency flood recovery, and the widow of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey.
"I do not like adding these kind of these things to it," said GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. "It's one of the tricks around here. One of the abuses around here is you get a bill that needs to go forward and needs to pass, and people try to load it up with things that are important to them. And in the long run that's not good for the public."
The Senate Conservatives Fund is already making hay of the provision, blasting it as a "Kentucky Kickback" that McConnell secured in exchange for backing the budget bill.