Stevens admits he held up bill

August 31, 2006|By Joel Havemann | Joel Havemann,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Ending a mystery that had captivated conservative and liberal Internet activists, Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, emerged yesterday as the senator who secretly held up action on a bill to create a searchable online catalog of federal grants and contracts aimed at helping the public find out who receives government support.

The acknowledgment by Stevens ended an innovative exercise in Internet-based political activism. Several blogs had urged readers to call senators and ask whether they had placed a "hold" on the bill to create the online database. Many activists believed the catalog would make it easier to root out pork-barrel spending.

As of midday yesterday, the blogs had been able to obtain denials from 97 senators that they had placed the hold, which under unwritten Senate rules prevented the legislation from moving to a floor vote. With the suspects narrowed to a small group, Stevens' office acknowledged that he had blocked the bill.

The bill was drafted by Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, in response to public concerns about the size of the federal deficit and, more specifically, the tendency of lawmakers to earmark funds in spending bills for favored projects at home.

"Why shouldn't the American people know where their money is being spent?" Coburn said in defense of his bill. He predicted that lawmakers would approve less spending if voters knew what the spending was for.

Stevens' spokesman, Aaron Saunders, said Stevens merely wanted the bill delayed until he could be convinced that it would not create another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. "We explained our position to Senator Coburn," Saunders said. "From our perspective, it hasn't been a secret hold."

Stevens took advantage of a Senate tradition that allows a single member or group of members with concerns about legislation to put a private hold on it by issuing a request - anonymously, if desired - to their party's Senate leader. The petitioners do not have to tell the sponsor of the legislation they are challenging, and the leader keeps the bill from coming to a vote until the senators' concerns are met.

Enter the blogs, with their opposition to pork-barrel congressional spending and their desire for greater government openness.

"We had the perfect irony of a senator's putting a secret hold on legislation designed to guarantee public transparency about pork," said Paul Kiel, a blogger-reporter for TPMmuckraker.com.

The first blog to take up the cause was Porkbusters, which seeks to control federal spending. It said its readers gathered denials from 27 senators that they had placed the hold.

Then readers of TPMmuckraker.com, a site that reports on public corruption, and GOPprogress .com joined the campaign.

Saunders said Stevens had not acknowledged his role sooner because he had been traveling during the August congressional recess.

"More important, the senator doesn't pursue his legislative goals through the media," Saunders said. "He didn't think there was a whole lot of value in turning this into a media circus."

Though the blogs had been urging readers for days to help hunt down the senator who had placed the hold, it emerged yesterday that Coburn had publicly identified Stevens on Aug. 17 as placing the hold. That fact was little-noticed until TMPmuckraker.com mentioned it yesterday morning.

An Arkansas newspaper, the Fort Smith Times Record, had reported that Coburn had discussed the situation at a town hall meeting in Sallisaw, Okla. "He's the only senator blocking it," Coburn was quoted as saying of Stevens.

Joel Havemann writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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