updated 8/4/2007 2:48:20 PM ET 2007-08-04T18:48:20

Republican John McCain said Saturday that Congress could share in the blame for the Minnesota bridge collapse because lawmakers diverted billions of dollars in transportation money from road work to pet projects.

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"I think perhaps you can make the argument that part of the responsibility lies with the Congress of the United States," the Arizona senator said.

McCain said Congress spent roughly $20 billion on special-interest projects when it approved a new highway bill, signed into law by President Bush.

"We spent approximately $20 billion of that money on pork barrel, earmark projects," said McCain. "Maybe if we had done it right, maybe some of that money would have gone to inspect those bridges and other bridges around the country. Maybe the 200,000 people who cross that bridge every day would have been safer than spending $233 million of your tax dollars on a bridge in Alaska to an island with 50 people on it."

McCain spoke during a town hall-style meeting with activists, saying he was angered not just by Congress wasting money on special projects, but also by it approving reform packages he labeled a sham.

"I'm angry today because we just had a chance to reform this process in Washington and we punted," said McCain. "We pushed off on the American people a joke and a sham in the name of earmark reform."

The term "earmark" refers to projects favored by individual lawmakers that are inserted into larger spending packages, often winning approval without debate.

Meeting with reporters after his session, McCain deflected questions about whether the bridge collapse could have been avoided if more had been spent on safety and inspections.

"The tragedy of the bridge over the Mississippi River is one that I don't know if it could have been avoided or not," McCain said. "Clearly inspections are needed of bridges and that's why the Department of Transportation has ordered them."

In the wake of the deadly collapse, federal transportation officials and those in many states have stepped up their inspections of bridges of a similar design to the one that collapsed into the Mississippi River.

The Senate has overwhelmingly approved legislation backers said is aimed at reforming the process of individual lawmakers slipping special projects into spending packages, but McCain dismissed that effort.

"We just completed a joke and a sham on the American people with pretended reform that we just passed," said McCain. "It does not attack seriously the earmark."

McCain also waded into a local controversy that could put him at odds with Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. Grassley has supported $50 million in funding for development of an indoor rain forest in Iowa, a plan that critics see as the epitome of pork barrel.

McCain used that rain forest as he recited a list of over-the-top spending projects Congress approved.

"Do you think even the people of Iowa think we need an indoor rain forest in Iowa?" asked McCain. McCain said he was being critical of the process that led to approval of the rain forest, a culture that's led to outrageous growth in spending.

"That's what's bred the corruption in Washington, that's what's caused members of Congress to be in jail," said McCain. "The most egregious of these pork barrel projects are on highway bills which are intended not for bridges to nowhere, not for museums, not for bike paths, but to make transportation safe and available to all Americans."

Saturday's swing was the first public campaign event McCain has held in Iowa since he slashed deeply into his campaign staff because of money troubles. After making that announcement, he made one low-key swing through the state but only met privately with staffers and key backers.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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