The funds for the âBridge to Nowhereâ had a tortured passage through the Congress in 2005, long before Gov. Sarah Palin confronted the problem of whether to continue it. The crucial vote on the bridgeâs future came on October 20, 2005, when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) brought an amendment to the floor to redirect $75 million in earmarks from Alaskaâs two massive bridge projects to the Gulf Coast. The amendment failed, with a final roll call of 82-15. Among the 82 senators voting against the amendment were Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Joe Biden (D-DE).
The vote came after a bitter Senate debate, when Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) – who along with Rep. Don Young (R-AK) had been the driving force behind the $223 million for the Gravina Island bridge and $231 million for the Knik Arm bridge – threatened to resign from the Senate if Coburnâs amendment passed.
Four Democrats voted for Coburnâs amendment: Sens. Kent Conrad (D-ND), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Russ Feingold (D-WI), and Evan Bayh (D-IN). Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), along with two other senators, did not vote. (McCain had voted against the original 2005 transportation bill, which contained the earmarks.)
Sen. Obama did address his vote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed one month later. In the op-ed, Obama argued that Congress could find the $100 billion needed for Gulf Coast reconstruction âwith a balanced approach on spending and cuts.â One âwrongâ approach, he wrote, was to single out Alaskaâs âBridge to Nowhereâ:
Others intent on cutting spending have pointed to Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere" as a wasteful project. I agree and believe that it represents the first type of project we should cut. But it's wrong to single out one state's pork project. If we're serious about shared responsibility, let's eliminate all pork projects in all states.
In arguing that it was wrong to pick on Alaska, Obama was offering âan excuse, not an explanation,â said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense. âThatâs standard 101 inside-Washington politics to say that no one can touch anyone elseâs earmarks.â
In defending their votes, other Democrats offered similar rationales. For instance, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) told the Lansing State Journal the amendment would have had adverse consequences for the federal largesse Michigan had in the bill: âThere were many projects in the highway bill - hundreds of projects - that I wouldn't favor if voted on separately. Pulling one project out of a bill Congress has already passed would no doubt lead to reopening the entire package, which overall would probably leave Michigan far worse off.â
If earmarks were going to be singled out, Obamaâs home state, Illinois, might have made a tempting target. According to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense, the 2005 transportation bill had $1.3 billion in earmarks for Illinois. (Most of that had been secured by the stateâs House delegation, which included then-Speaker Dennis Hastert.) Delaware, Bidenâs home state, had $168.3 million in earmarks. Biden, the stateâs senior lawmaker, has been open about his support for his stateâs earmarks, which he says, are all âstraight up.â Some critics disagree.
The Obama campaign did not return our request for comment about either Obamaâs or Bidenâs vote, but weâll let you know if they do.