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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.

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While the House Republican caucus voted last year to voluntarily give up earmarks for the 2010 fiscal year, Senate GOP leaders had insisted that earmarking is a congressional prerogative and should be preserved. Despite the House GOP moratorium, House Democrats and members of both parties in the Senate passed 9,129 earmarks worth some $16.5 billion, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.

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But the energy and success at the polls of the tea party movement gave the anti-earmark drive fresh momentum. Tea party activists call earmarks a symbol of corruption and arrogance. At a mid-day rally outside the Capitol sponsored by the anti-earmark group Americans for Prosperity, activists cheered calls for reform and shouted: “No compromise!”

“Everything has changed here in Washington. I think people are listening,” said Senator DeMint, an early backer of tea party candidates. “If we can’t decide as a federal government that it’s not our job to build local museums, then we don’t understand what limited government is,” he told the crowd.

Would a ban be permanent?

After the rally, DeMint dismissed suggestions that the earmark vote was a proxy battle between him and GOP leader McConnell. “It’s a proxy between us and the American people,” he said. The earmark vote is a key signal to voters that Republicans heard the message of the 2010 election. “This is not a time to send a signal that we’re going to weasel out of it,” he added.

In a related move, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate Republican Conference, announced support of moratorium on earmarks “because they have become a symbol of wasteful spending.” But he saw the move only as a temporary one to “limit the number of earmarks and make sure they are worthy.”

“Cleaning up earmarks is good short-term policy, but as long-term policy it would undermine the Constitution because instead of placing a check on the president, it turns the checkbook over to him,” he said in a statement. “This moratorium will help put the spotlight on executive branch earmarks, which in 2008 spent more than congressional earmarks.”

VIDEO: Voices of the Tea Party

GOP challenges Obama

For his part, DeMint applauded McConnell’s decision and issued a challenge to the president.

“Now that Republicans are taking real action to end wasteful spending, I hope President Obama follows through with his rhetoric and promises to veto any bill with Democrat earmarks,” he added.

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Mr. Obama also called for an earmark ban. "I agree with those Republican and Democratic members of Congress who've recently said that in these challenging days, we can't afford what are called earmarks," he said. "We have a chance to not only shine a light on a bad Washington habit that wastes billions of taxpayer dollars, but take a step toward restoring public trust.

On the House side, Congressman Flake suggested that the ban become universal and mandatory. “I hope that the Republican leaders in the Senate strictly enforce the will of its conference. Republicans will have a difficult time being taken seriously if some Republican senators are allowed to circumvent the ban,” he said in a statement on Monday.

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