The 11 House Democrats led by Rep. Bart Stupak who dropped their opposition to health care reform legislation mere hours before the final vote have requested $3.4 billion in earmarks -- and one watchdog group wants to know whether the money represents business as usual or political payoffs.
The Sunlight Foundation says it plans to track the earmark requests, which were put in one day after health care reform cleared Congress, to see whether they're approved and whether it appears lawmakers are being rewarded for their vote.
"We know that in Congress one of the ways that leadership tries to influence members is through earmarks," said Bill Allison, editorial director at the nonpartisan organization. "So this seemed to us something good to follow."
Stupak and the 10 other Democrats were critical to the success of the health care bill. They were holding out over concerns about funding for abortion coverage but announced the president had assuaged their worries -- with an executive order restricting abortion funding -- the morning of the big vote.
Stupak's office said there's absolutely no link between the earmarks and the health care bill's passage.
"The congressman's vote for health care has no connection to annual appropriations requests," spokeswoman Michelle Benoche said. "Appropriations requests were submitted on Monday, March 22, because that is the deadline of the Appropriations Committee."
She also said his earmark requests this year are in line with prior years, in number and in total amount.
But watchdogs want to know whether there's more to the story.
Since the health care reform push hit its final stretch, numerous sweeteners for lawmakers' districts and states have been found inside the package. Earmark requests are made outside of the health care bill, making them a bit more difficult to link to any vote-trading. But it is precisely that kind of tricky-to-catch deal-making that Republican Sen. Tom Coburn said he and other GOP senators would be monitoring for months to come. (Continues here)