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How tea party senators stared down Mitch McConnell on earmark ban

Pressure from tea party-backed Republican freshmen senators led Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell to reverse course: He said Monday he would back an earmark ban.

By Staff writer / November 15, 2010

Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky walks down a Senate corridor on Capitol Hill in Washington after a meeting with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell Monday. Paul has called for a end to the earmark process.

Harry Hamburg/AP

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Washington

In a surprise reversal, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky announced today that he will join House GOP leaders in voting to ban “earmarks” – member projects often criticized as pork barrel spending – thus avoiding an early clash with tea party freshmen committed to ending the practice.

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The issue was seen as a litmus test of how far the Republican leadership would go to satisfy freshmen lawmakers and the tea party movement that propelled some of them to victory. In the past, Senate Republicans have defended their right to use earmarks, but the process has been a primary tea party complaint.

Senator McConnell's decision suggests that, in Round 1 at least, the GOP establishment blinked first.

“I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. I don’t apologize for them,” McConnell said at the opening of a lame duck session of Congress on Monday. “But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight.”

“And unless people like me show the American people that we’re willing to follow through on small or even symbolic things, we risk losing them on our broader efforts to cut spending and rein in government,” he added.

Freshmen flex muscles

The move came on the eve of a Senate Republican caucus vote on Tuesday that was shaping up as an early test of the clout the 16-member GOP freshmen class – the largest class for Republicans since 1980.

Republican freshmen Sens.-elect Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Mike Lee of Utah took the lead organizing GOP freshmen to push for an earmark ban, despite the expected opposition of current Senate GOP leaders. On Friday, Mr. Lee, in an e-mail, called on the GOP caucus to hold a public, recorded vote on this issue, rather than the scheduled vote by secret ballot.

“The public has decided that both [parties] are untrustworthy,” said Mr. Paul, a tea party leader whose primary victory against a GOP establishment-backed rival was an early sign of the impact of conservative protesters in the 2010 election. Earmarks are a key issue because they “symbolize the waste up here, and people are annoyed by [them],” he said, in between freshmen orientation sessions on Monday.

How big a deal are earmarks?

Earmarks account for less than 1 percent of the federal budget but take up an outsize share of lawmakers’ time. Conservative critics dub them “favor factories” and a “gateway drug” to big government, deficit spending. A handful of GOP lawmakers – notably Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona – mounted scores of failed challenges to specific earmarks for years, most of which lost by lopsided votes.

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