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.

Harry Hamburg/AP
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.

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.

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.

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.

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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