Robert Novak

Stevens was prepared. "We have to stop using Defense money for contracts with universities and basic research at the suggestion of a single senator," he said. "Not one" official from the military community, he said, "came to us and said we needed more money for brain research." Similar lack of support in the executive branch breeds earmarks, which have reached epidemic proportions.

"I plead guilty," responded Durbin. "It is an earmark." He said he and Obama were taking money out of their earmarks to finance this expenditure. Characteristically, he played on heartstrings about 1,700 wounded soldiers returning from combat with brain damage: "Would we want to at least err on the side of these soldiers?"

That was enough for Stevens to tell more about dealings with a Senate colleague than is usually revealed: "We had a total of $3 billion in requests from this subcommittee for medical research from other senators. We turned them all down. The senator from Illinois wouldn't take 'no'." Warming to his subject, Stevens went on: "We cannot do this just for one senator, and I have been a whip, and I understand what it means to have access to the floor and make a demand."

Durbin's amendment lost, 52 to 43. Stevens collected all Republican senators except Conrad Burns of Montana and Mike DeWine of Ohio, both facing uphill battles for re-election. The only Democrats opposing Durbin were Daniel Inouye of Hawaii (Stevens's subcommittee co-chairman) and reformer Russell Feingold of Wisconsin.

Stevens's Defense bill, awaiting final action when Congress reconvenes, included $5 million for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission and $500,000 for a traveling exhibit on World War II. Rejecting Durbin's earmark did not signify the coming of reform in the Senate, but looked more like Stevens and other Republicans getting even with the senator they like least.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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