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Coburn Targets Defense Earmarks

While everyone else in the Senate has been focused on when, how or if the United States should pull out of the Iraq War, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has been quietly laying the groundwork for a different fight on the Defense Department authorization bill.

With four amendments zeroing in on earmarks, Coburn indicated that he is likely to further gum up the works on the Defense bill the Senate is debating this week if he cannot secure votes on his proposals.

“If we ever get past the Iraq amendments … I’m going to have my right to offer amendments,” he said Tuesday.

One Senate GOP aide went further, saying Coburn is likely to object to every unanimous consent request for votes or other procedures on the Senate floor until he gets a commitment to vote on his amendments.

But Senate Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said Coburn probably would not get much leadership support for his efforts.

“I don’t think there’s any appetite for taking this on,” Thune said of the earmark fight. Thune, who also sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and praised the scope of the underlying bill, said there are “other amendments that are more relevant” that would need to be debated on the Senate floor.

Coburn’s centerpiece proposal is a measure that would effectively end the practice of earmarking funds for specific companies or government contractors, including for targeted funding provisions in appropriations bills.

“This would mean, in practice, that all earmarks would be competitively bid rather than directed to a pre-selected recipient,” a Coburn statement said.

To make his larger point about forcing the Defense Department, or other agencies, to contract with specific companies, Coburn is offering amendments that single out two earmarks in the bill that Coburn finds particularly egregious.

One would eliminate funding for a controversial Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) provision to fund the National Drug Intelligence Center in his hometown of Johnstown, Pa.

Coburn argues that both the director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department have recommended that the center be closed for “poor performance.”

But the acting director of the center, Irene Hernandez, told The Associated Press earlier this month that the agency does vital work in the war against drugs.

“We can do an independent assessment of the drug trafficking situation, and we can say this is what’s happening,” Hernandez told AP. “There’s nobody else positioned to do what we do.”

In May, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) also attempted to strike the center’s funding, prompting a widely reported argument between the two men that ended in Murtha threatening to withhold earmarks for Rogers’ district. Murtha survived a party-line vote on whether he broke House rules by trying to bully Rogers.

Coburn also wants to eliminate a $7.5 million earmark in the Senate bill for 21st Century Systems Inc., which Coburn’s statement says is “a shadowy Nebraska-based defense contractor that has been described by the Omaha World-Herald as ‘The Company That Congress Built.’”

Coburn’s statement quotes the Hawaii High Technology Development Corp., a state agency, as saying 21CSI “develops very sophisticated video games to help military decision makers … simulate and predict the moves of their adversaries.”(The company also has an office in Hawaii and has received $11.9 million in earmarks from that state’s legislators, according to the World-Herald.)

Of the video game, “Nobody in the Pentagon will say they want it,” Coburn said.

But Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) defended the earmark as promoting high-tech business in his home state and said Coburn’s tongue-in-cheek statement on whether the “earmark is for a new release on PlayStation or Xbox” isn’t warranted.

“Nobody in the Pentagon is saying that,” said Nelson, who came under fire in his 2006 re-election campaign for aiding the company while his son, Patrick, works as 21CSI’s marketing director.

Nelson spokesman David DiMartino questioned why Coburn wasn’t going after another reputed video-game maker for the Pentagon.

“It’s ironic that Senator Coburn would attack a small research and development contractor in Nebraska for producing what he calls ‘video games’ when the same bill includes a $5 million Congressional earmark for a company at Fort Sill in Oklahoma that actually produces real video games for the Xbox and PlayStation formats that you can buy at Circuit City,” DiMartino said. “If hypocrites came in black and white, Senator Coburn would sure look like a zebra right now.”

Indeed, the current bill contains an earmark — requested by fellow Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe — for a Lawton, Okla., company called Techrizon, which develops training and simulation software for the Pentagon.

Coburn’s fourth amendment would require the Army to initiate a competitive bidding process for picking the next generation of rifles to replace the current M16 rifles. The current bill provides $327 million for the purchase of 117,000 M4 carbine rifles.

Coburn contends that some in the military have criticized the M4 pick because it relies on older technology and may not actually be the best weapon for U.S. combat troops.

But military weapons experts at Georgia’s Fort Benning have argued that the M4 satisfies the Army’s needs, according to the Army Times.