WASHINGTON -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday there were "bigger things to object to" in the bill that reopened the government than the $2.1 billion for the so-called "Kentucky Kickback" dam project, as reporters pressed her at length on the congressional practice of inserting special interest provisions into appropriations bills.
A reporter asked Pelosi about criticism over several add-ons in the continuing resolution Congress passed Wednesday night, and Pelosi responded that many of her members have "some of the same questions" about certain elements of the bill that was negotiated in the Senate.
"Now, we in the House are always suspicious of the Senate when they want to go first, and what are they doing over there," Pelosi said.
"I think it was just a continuation of what went before," she added, when the reporter pressed Pelosi on whether she thought it was right to include the provisions. "Whatever it was, it was not enough to say, we're not going to open up government."
Section 123 of the Senate bill secured $2.918 billion for the Olmsted Lock and Dam Authority to fund a dam project on the Ohio River -- a significant boost from the $775 million originally allotted. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who brokered the Senate deal, has been criticized over the provision, and the Senate Conservatives Fund has attacked him for seeking a "Kentucky Kickback."
"The McConnell-Reid bill not only funds Obamacare and suspends the debt limit, it ALSO includes a provision … that increases the authorization for the Olmsted Lock in Kentucky from $775 million to nearly $3 billion," the group said in a statement. "In exchange for funding Obamacare and raising the debt limit, Mitch McConnell has secured a $2 billion earmark."
McConnell's office said he was not responsible for inserting the language into the bill, and that Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), both members of the Appropriations Committee, had requested its inclusion. The offices of both lawmakers confirmed to Time that they were responsible for the insertion. Alexander's office said the Army Corps of Engineers estimated a waste of $160 million in taxpayer dollars if the language was left out, due to canceled contracts.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also defended the provision late Wednesday, noting it was "not an earmark" and that there was "no need to point fingers at anyone."
Pelosi herself seemed unclear on the details of the project. But as reporters continued to press her Thursday on whether its inclusion was appropriate, she argued it was more important to reopen the government and avoid default.
"What difference does it make? Why are we talking about this?" Pelosi said, noting she opposed the Senate bill on merit because it kept sequester spending levels, not because it contained extra little provisions. But she and every Democrat voted for it anyway, in order to end the shutdown and raise the debt limit.
"If you want to have an objection to the bill, there are bigger things to object to, but the fact is that we had to open government," she said. "The ways of the Senate on these issues is something that I have my own, shall we say, ongoing concerns about.
"The Senate is the Senate," she added. "You have to talk to them about what's in the bill and what its purpose was, but what I said on the floor [is] I'm not pinning a rose on this bill."
When asked about the public's cynicism over lawmakers' penchant for adding special interest provisions to bills, Pelosi responded, "The cynicism is not about that. It's about government being closed for 16 days."