WASHINGTON – This time, the battle over congressional pork smelled, well, refried.
Sen. John McCain (search), famous for picking apart his colleagues' pet projects, had his traditional fun this week raking over a $368.6 billion defense spending bill. There was the money for Shakespeare plays, renovations at a closed air base, research on canola oil and combatting brown tree snakes.
But this time the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, fellow Republican Ted Stevens (search) of Alaska, was ready to explain each expenditure.
That's because, for the first time, McCain's aides and Stevens' committee staff discussed the controversial measures in advance. The sparring McCain knew he would lose -- the bill passed 95-0 Thursday night -- was rehearsed.
Mocking a $1 million expenditure for a Shakespeare in American Military Communities (search) program, McCain asked, "What is wrong with Ernest Hemingway?"
Stevens replied, "The goal is to bring the arts to military personnel and their families. ... The proposal for this year is to perform Macbeth on 16 military bases." The Defense Department, he said, "is very pleased" with the program.
McCain wondered about the $2.5 million earmarked for the Canola Oil Fuel Cell Initiative (search). "The only canola oil the Department of Defense should be investing in should be used for salad dressing for our troops."
Stevens said the joint Pentagon-Interior Department project has a "legitimate defense interest," converting agricultural products into fuel, Stevens said.
Griffiss Air Force Base (search) in Rome, N.Y., closed in 1995, McCain said. Why did its hangar need renovation, at $2.5 million?
Because, Stevens explained, the hangar is used by an Air Force research laboratory and damage "increases the heating, utility and other fixed costs of the laboratory facility."
Then there was the $1 million appropriation to combat brown tree snakes in Hawaii. The snakes crawl onto military planes in Guam, where they naturally live, Stevens said, and are carried to Hawaii, where they are a menace to farmers.
McCain also took a dig at spending in Stevens' home state.
"The bases in Alaska stand to benefit a great deal in this legislation," McCain said. "Alaskan bases alone will receive $214 million in unrequested spending for improvements, renovations and upgrades.
"Looking back at my career in the Navy, I wish I had been so fortunate as to be stationed in Alaska."
Stevens couldn't let that one go. He said the military was looking into expanding the cultural programs such as the Shakespeare performances, and mentioned a couple of bases. "We have under consideration Fort Huachucca (search) and Davis-Monthan (search) Air Force Bases," Stevens said.
Both are in McCain's home state of Arizona.