Powerful Senate Democrats and Republicans back earmarks

Senate Democrats and Republicans don't agree on much, but they appear to have found common ground in favor of the practice of congressionally directed spending, also known as earmarking.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, has been a strong advocate of earmarks and reiterated his support Friday in a statement to the National Journal. "My position on earmarks has not changed," he said. "Congressional initiatives are an important part of the constitutional duty of Congress and they have been vital to fortifying the physical, social, and economic infrastructure of Hawaii and the nation."

Inouye has argued that Congress is charged with the power of the purse in the Constitution and earmarking is one way Congress exercises that power. He believes that lawmakers know best where to direct money in their own states. He also contends that if Congress doesn't exercise its power to earmark funds, it would allow the White House to spend the money as it sees fit through the federal agencies under its jurisdiction.

Inouye's comments came after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., used similar arguments to defend earmarks after giving a speech Thursday.

"Well, every president, Republican or Democrat, would love to have a blank check from Congress to do whatever he chose to do on every single issue. And we'll be discussing the appropriateness of giving the president that kind of blank check in the coming weeks, because that's really what that issue's about," McConnell said.

"You could eliminate every congressional earmark and you would save no money. It's really an argument about discretion. We decide how much we're going to spend either when we pass a budget or, in the case of this past year, when we don't pass a budget, when we produce a top line for the discretionary spending. That top line determines what gets spent," McConnell continued.

"Beneath the top line there are arguments going back to Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson between the executive branch and the legislative branch over say-so, if you will. And that's been a much-discussed issue on the campaign trail, and we'll take a look at it when we get back. But I'm sure the president would love to have a legislative blank check," McConnell said.

Earmarks have become a hot issue as many victorious Republican candidates campaigned on ending or changing the practice.

Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., who is seeking to become House majority leader in the Republican-run House next year, this week called for an extension of the current House Republican earmark moratorium. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, next year's likely House speaker, is expected to heed Cantor's call and seek to extend the ban to the current fiscal year, which began October 1.

Even President Obama might be on board.

The day after the election, Obama said, "My understanding is Eric Cantor today said that he wanted to see a moratorium on earmarks continuing. That's something I think we can -- we can work on together."

But while McConnell and Inouye appear to be on the same page concerning earmarks, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., does not agree.

DeMint, in an interview with National Journal, said he intends to push the Senate Republican Conference to vote on an earmark ban similar to their House counterparts.

"... That's the rule change I'm going to bring forward and I think we'll see right away in the House and in the Senate whether or not Republicans are serious about what they ran on," DeMint said in the interview.

But it is unclear whether DeMint's proposal would be adopted. McConnell and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, as well as the Republican members of the Appropriations Committee, are all senators comfortable with earmarks.

In March, the Senate defeated, 68-29, an amendment DeMint offered to Federal Aviation Administration legislation that would have imposed a virtual ban on earmarks for fiscal year 2010 and 2011 by requiring a two-thirds vote on a point of order for any bill that included earmarks in those years.

Of the 68 senators who voted to kill DeMint's amendment, 13 were Republicans.

Click here to get a glimpse of National Journal's new website.

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