(WASHINGTON) — There’s a controversy brewing in the halls of Congress, pitting budget hawk Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., against two New York senators and touching on a politically and emotionally sensitive subject.
Coburn is singlehandedly holding up federal funding for the 9/11 memorial museum at Ground Zero.
Legislation before the Senate calls for $20 million a year, $200 million total over the next 10 years in federal funding for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero.
Coburn is calling for equivalent cuts to be made to pay for the added government spending on the project.
In a letter sent to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Wednesday, Coburn says that while the “merits” of the museum project are not in question, he has “concerns” about the legislation.
“This legislation authorizes at least $200 million over the next 10 years for the effort, but does not include any provisions to pay for these potential costs, adding to our more than $15 trillion debt,” Coburn wrote.
Coburn’s office said the dispute could be solved “in minutes” if the sponsors would just look for areas of waste and duplication in the general government already identified by the Government Accountability Office.
“Coburn believes we can best honor the heroism and sacrifices of 9/11 by making hard choices and reducing spending on less-vital priorities, rather than borrowing money,” Coburn spokesman John Hart told ABC News Wednesday. “Finding $20 million in savings is the least we can do to demonstrate that Congress also understands the value of service and sacrifice.”
Even better would be if members of Congress could encourage the effort to fund the project using local sources, or — as is the case with the Oklahoma City bombing memorial — private sources, Coburn’s office said.
His office noted that the 9/11 museum is “already receiving generous private support from hundreds of patriotic Americans, businesses and corporations across the country,” so it shouldn’t need the extra federal money.
Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, two of the co-sponsors of the bill, on Wednesday responded in anger to the lone senator standing in the way of government funding for the museum.
Schumer said the project needs to be funded with some federal money in substance and for the sake of symbolism.
“This is sacred ground not only to New Yorkers but to Americans, and to have the memorial, the museum, in as good a way as possible not limited by lack of funding makes eminent sense,” Schumer told reporters Wednesday. “Clearly, if you talk to [New York] Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg and others, and there’s been very generous support from the private sector, there is not enough money to keep, to have the memorial function in the way it should.”
Schumer and Gillibrand plan to sit down with Coburn “soon” to discuss his concerns.
“We hope that Sen. Coburn will relent,” Schumer said.
Coburn, in his letter Wednesday, demanded a “full accounting of previously awarded federal funding” for the museum, as well as a “detailed breakdown of the project with itemized cost estimates.”
“It is, after all, our obligation as stewards of the treasury to scrutinize for taxpayers how every penny we spend is put to use,” Coburn wrote, “even for the best intentioned projects.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
David Goldman, CNN
Megan McNulty, Deseret News