McCaskill produces a flurry of proposals

It’s never a bad time for a politician to pitch proposals that are expected to be embraced by voters.

But now is a particularly opportune time for Sen. Claire McCaskill. The Missouri Democrat’s bid for re-election next year is considered a toss-up race, one prominent political scientist predicted Thursday.

In a flurry of action this week, McCaskill proposed eliminating all congressional earmarks, those pork-barrel projects slipped into spending bills without the usual scrutiny. And on Thursday, she recommended taking a portion of the money now being spent on large construction projects in Afghanistan and shifting it to the United States to upgrade roads and bridges here.

“I can’t stand by as we spend billions on roads, electrical grids, bridges in Afghanistan, knowing the incredible need we have in this country for exactly that kind of investment,” McCaskill said.

Both proposals may very well generate applause back in Missouri — and that may be precisely the point.

“These are popular positions,” said University of Missouri political scientist Peverill Squire. “This gives her a couple of issues where she’s out front taking stands where probably most Missourians agree with her.”

For her part, McCaskill said both plans are aimed at doing what makes good financial sense and not scoring points with voters. She said she’s been doing that since arriving in Washington in 2007.

“This notion that somehow this is a conversion for the purpose of the election, those are people who haven’t been paying attention,” she said of her critics.

Political pundits have noticed that McCaskill has been warily eyeing her 2012 re-election race for some time.

In January, she announced she was searching for alternatives to the individual mandate, a key component of President Barack Obama’s national health care reform law. The mandate requires that virtually every individual carry health insurance or pay a penalty, and has proved to be especially controversial.

McCaskill was an early supporter of Obama in 2008, but began to distance herself from him at a time the president’s poll numbers dropped so low that many Democrats now doubt he will actively campaign in the Show Me state next year. A CNN analysis of the 2012 presidential race released Thursday didn’t even mention Missouri, once considered a top battleground state.

These days, McCaskill is fond of saying she’s not afraid to tell the president when she thinks he’s wrong. But those ties may be hard to cut.

“She’s linked with him,” Squire noted. “But look at a lot of the things she’s done the last couple of years trying to counter that by taking strong positions against government spending.”

Three Republicans — former state treasurer Sarah Steelman, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin and St. Louis businessman John Brunner — are running in the August primary for the chance to take on McCaskill next fall.

“These are actions taken the last couple of days that have everything to do about her worrying about getting re-elected, which is what Washington does quite well,” Steelman said. “The public is sick and tired of (members of Congress) putting their interests ahead of the country’s interests.”

Akin also said McCaskill’s recent action “smells like election-year proposals.”

But in a sign of how popular McCaskill’s earmark plan is with conservatives, Steelman said she supported it and hoped it passes. She only questioned why McCaskill took so long to get engaged on the issue.

Indeed, McCaskill is teaming up with Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, on the earmark ban. Currently there’s a temporary ban on earmarks, which McCaskill played a central role in promoting, much to her own party’s dismay. She and Toomey, a tea party ally and longtime fiscal watchdog, have a bill to do away with them permanently.

The pair is hoping that in the current climate of frugality, and with the public angry and elections looming, legislators might be wary of spending like recent lottery winners.

“We can’t afford to waste money this way,” Toomey said.

Even before the senators’ joint press conference began, Brunner tried to undercut McCaskill. In a statement, his campaign listed examples of bills that she supported that included earmarks.

McCaskill, however, defended those votes.

“I never have requested or sought or gotten an earmark,” she said in a statement. “When I got here I knew that if I voted against every appropriations bill that had earmarks I would never be able to vote for any appropriations bills.”

A Brunner spokesman later admitted that he didn’t know how his candidate would handle a similar situation if elected.

On the bill that would funnel defense money intended for projects in Afghanistan to U.S. infrastructure projects, McCaskill said if passed it would result in $800 million coming home.

She said government auditors have determined that major infrastructure projects in Afghanistan had failed to improve relations between the government and its people, which was a key goal of the counterinsurgency movement.

“We should take this investment and put it in roads and bridges right here in our country,” McCaskill argued.

But Akin countered that new roadways in Afghanistan are needed to help wean that nation off its heavy reliance on the heroin trade.

“I think we need serious problem-solving here,” he said.

Washington corespondent David Goldstein contributed to this report.