Senate battle over earmark moratorium heats up

An earmark moratorium fight pitting Senate Republican leaders against earmark opponents led by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., is heating up as the factions have begun touting dueling whip lists showing they hold an advantage.

One earmark advocate on Wednesday cited a tally showing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is working against the resolution, with likely support from more than half the incoming 47-member GOP conference.

But those who back the resolution say that list includes some expected moratorium backers like Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who have co-signed a letter proposing the conference-wide ban. It also includes Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who last year announced he would not request earmarks.

The vote, which will be held in a closed-door Republican Caucus meeting on Tuesday, may go down to the wire. That is partly because the secret ballot makes public pledges unreliable. The moratorium would be nonbinding. But a loss would be an embarrassing opening setback for McConnell, who must manage an expanded group of conservatives whose anti-Washington rhetoric at times includes distancing themselves from GOP leadership.

The list of Republican signatories to the letter proposing a ban climbed to 13 Wednesday evening. In addition to DeMint and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who are leading the push for the ban, there are Burr, Sessions, Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., John Ensign, R-Nev., John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen.-elects Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Mike Lee, R-Utah, Pat Toomey, R-Pa., Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Rand Paul, R-Ky.

The signatories, in a letter to Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., propose passage of a resolution stating: "Resolved, that it is the policy of the Republican Conference that no Member shall request a congressionally directed spending item, limited tax benefit, or limited tariff benefit, as such terms are used in Rule XLIV of the Standing Rules of the Senate for the 112th Congress."

The letter notes the resolutions and its definitions are the same as a moratorium House Republicans plan to extend into the 112th Congress.

McConnell has questioned the value of a GOP-only earmark ban, saying that such a resolution may prove ineffective, and would only result in ceding congressional power to the executive branch. He is also hoping a balanced budget amendment resolution offered by Cornyn will give Republicans sufficient cover to reject a ban.

DeMint and Coburn argue that failure to enact a ban would signal business as usual and hurt the party's credibility with voters who expect Republicans to attack wasteful spending. On Wednesday, Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., began a public defense of earmarks he promised before the election. Most senior Senate Republicans, including McConnell, Alexander, Senate Banking Committee ranking member Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., are appropriators and advocates of the kind of directed spending earmarks represent.

Senate Energy ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who looks likely to win a write-in effort, also falls in that group, but her election, if she prevails, will likely not be certified in time for the vote next week. Several retiring appropriators, Sens. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., who would likely side with McConnell on the issue, cannot vote on the resolution because it affects the next Congress.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec