WASHINGTON (AP) – In proposing only modest changes in how lawmakers finance their pet projects, President Barack Obama tossed aside a golden opportunity to work with Sen. John McCain. Instead, the president stood foursquare with his Democratic allies, the people he needs most to advance his ambitious agenda.

McCain is the top sponsor of a proposal to give the president more power to cut spending from bills project by project, a kind of line-item veto lite called “expedited rescission” that’s been around since the early 1990s. But when it came to discussing how to deal with so-called earmarks on Wednesday, Obama had nothing to say about McCain’s idea.

Little wonder. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid don’t like it. And a fleeting alliance with McCain isn’t as important as good relations with those who regulate the flow of legislation in Congress.

Just Tuesday, Obama’s budget director said Obama would probably support legislation introduced by McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to award Obama the beefed-up rescission powers.

“The president during his campaign spoke about a line-item veto that would need to be done in a constitutionally valid way,” said White House budget chief Peter Orszag. “Enhanced rescission powers are also a possibility.”

Asked about the idea last month, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama would “love to take that for a test drive.”

Obama won’t get that chance. On Wednesday, during a meeting in which Obama’s earmark proposal was finalized, the president sided with the old-school Democrats. They view expedited rescissions – both the House and Senate would vote on whether to accept a recommended list of cuts shortly after receiving it – as an intrusion into the prerogatives of Congress.

The White House has signaled that Obama will use the existing rescissions process to identify waste in the just-enacted omnibus bill and send it to Congress. But Democratic leaders could ignore the missive; under McCain’s legislation a vote would be guaranteed.

McCain’s idea is a far weaker anti-spending tool than the line-item veto that congressional Republicans gave President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s. That version required two-thirds votes in both the House and Senate to overturn vetoes. The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1998.

McCain’s bill was on an options list and was discussed, said a Democratic House leadership aide, who demanded anonymity to speak candidly about the private negotiations.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., scoffed at the idea that Obama should have sided with McCain.

“Stand in lockstep with all the (Republicans) who’ve been so supportive of him over the past month and a half,” Hoyer said. “That’s a heck of a strategy!”

Indeed, McCain issued a statement Wednesday blasting Obama’s proposed reforms as thin gruel.

“We will continue to do business as usual in Washington regarding earmarks,” McCain said. “The president could have resolved this issue in one statement – no more unauthorized pork-barrel projects – and pledged to use his veto pen to stop them. This is an opportunity missed.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that Obama has asked the White House budget office to scrutinize the omnibus bill. “Staff will make a recommendation regarding whether a rescissions package should go forward or not,” Gibbs said.

In his comments on earmarks Wednesday, Obama sounded more like a defender of earmarks than a critic.

“Done right, earmarks have given legislators the opportunity to direct federal money to worthy projects that benefit people in their districts, and that’s why I’ve opposed their outright elimination,” he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE – Andrew Taylor has covered Congress since 1990.

AP-ES-03-12-09 1632EDT

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