WASHINGTON -- When Minnesota officials asked Congress to earmark $25 million for the Central Corridor Light Rail project this month, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum's office demanded that Gov. Tim Pawlenty personally sign a statement backing "Congress' authority to direct project specific funding."

Translation: If the governor wants the money, he'll have to endorse Congress spending money on home-district projects, a process known as earmarking -- and one that's generated a lot of smoke in congressional and presidential politics this year.

Pawlenty, a co-chairman in the GOP presidential campaign of anti-earmark crusader John McCain, balked at McCollum's demand.

"The earmarking process," Pawlenty said in a letter back to her, "is in need of reform."

While there is little doubt that McCollum will still vouch for the $900 million rail project in the heart of her St. Paul district, analysts say her attempt to extract earmark sign-off from Pawlenty raises the rhetorical heat in the congressional battle over so-called pork-barrel spending.

"They're politicizing a process that's already political," said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, the group that coined the phrase "Bridge to Nowhere" to derail a multi-million-dollar bridge project in Alaska.

Under pressure from House Republicans, Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi is considering a freeze on earmarks, a move that would neutralize a GOP campaign issue but also jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in home-district projects around the nation.

The anti-earmark bandwagon received a push this week from Democratic presidential contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who joined McCain in a Senate effort to ban home state projects next year.

Minnesota seeks $160 million

Minnesota alone has nearly $160 million in earmark requests before Congress, including $25 million for the Central Corridor Light Rail project connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Backers of the rail project, including Pawlenty, say it hardly qualifies as pork. Nevertheless, they've been caught up in an election-year tussle that has seen two GOP House members from Minnesota -- John Kline and Michele Bachmann -- pledge not to seek earmarks in their districts.

Meanwhile, two Minnesota Democrats -- McCollum and Rep. Keith Ellison -- have begun requiring all those who seek earmarks in their districts, including the governor, to submit letters supporting the congressional prerogative to secure the funding.

McCollum, in a letter to Pawlenty on Tuesday, called it an "accountability measure," given the political heat congressional appropriators have taken in recent weeks.

"These earmarks are often referred to as 'pork,' derided as wasteful spending by my Republican colleagues in Congress," she said.

In particular, McCollum singled out Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, who called earmarks "the poster children of fiscal irresponsibility, the kissing cousin to unethical behavior, and an all too frequent enabler of unlawful acts."

President Bush has directed federal agencies to ignore congressional earmarks for the fiscal year that begins in October, and not spend those funds. McCain has suggested he would veto earmark-laden bills if he is elected. Moreover, nearly 160 House Republicans, including Kline and Bachmann, have signed a resolution calling for an earmark moratorium.

"Minnesotans are tired of seeing Congress spend their hard-earned tax dollars as though it were Monopoly money," Bachmann said.

Democrats have bristled in the face of this onslaught, arguing that Republicans earmarked with record abandon and with less transparency in their 12 years in control of Congress. One of the state's biggest federal earmarks in the past year, they note, is for the Northstar line through Bachmann's district. She, however, did not request it.

Bachmann said Tuesday that she will now seek federal funding for local projects through the regular "budget process," that is, without resorting to special earmarks.

That's a scenario many Democrats consider unrealistic.

Pawlenty a target

Meanwhile, Pawlenty's ties to McCain, who is reportedly considering him as a running-mate, have made the governor a tempting Democratic target. So, too, has his recent opposition to a state gas tax hike.

"He can't have it both ways," Ellison said. "If the gas tax was so unnecessary, he wouldn't need to go to Congress for earmarks."

Pawlenty, in his letter to Ellison and McCollum, avoided the earmark tag altogether. He noted that all the state's funding requests in Congress have merit and "could withstand a competition for funds with other projects if the process is fair and administered as part of a sufficient general appropriation."

Moreover, Pawlenty argued, requiring him to personally certify the state's funding requests to Ellison and McCollum would create "a two-tier expectation between different states and even different members of Congress."

Many earmark critics, including Kline, acknowledge that not all earmark requests amount to pork.

"None of us would argue that Congress doesn't have the power of the purse," he said. "Congress can direct money as it chooses, including at directed projects. Our position is that the current system is broken, and needs to be stopped until we can fix it."

Said Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung: "These Minnesota projects should compete in a merit-based, general pool and if such a pool doesn't currently exist for these types of projects, Congress could create one."

But until then, McCollum said, lawmakers in Washington have to vouch for state projects under the system that they have. "Every request for federal funding that I sponsor... becomes my responsibility," she said. "I expect anyone requesting support for a project from this office to be held accountable as well."

kdiaz@startribune.com • 202-408-2753