Senate Republicans on Tuesday voted to ban “pork-barrel” spending as a couple of Democrats rushed to join the fight on a politically potent issue that has enraged voters and helped give rise to the GOP’s “tea party”-infused midterm election victories.
The GOP caucus announced the decision hours after four senators - two Republicans and two Democrats - vowed to force the Senate to hold a public vote on a earmark moratorium that would run through 2013.
The “greatest national security threat facing our nation today is our national debt and a Congress that refuses to acknowledge the depth of our challenges,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, who offered the resolution with Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican.
Following in the footsteps of the House GOP, the 47-member incoming Senate Republican Conference in a voice vote passed a nonbinding resolution barring members from requesting earmarks for two years. The move is designed to reduce spending and rein in the costly horse-trading of pet projects. It also puts pressure on Democrats and soothes divisions among GOP leaders and conservative members of the caucus.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that he would allow a vote to go forward on the proposal, although he personally opposes it. “I think it would be a major step backward,” the Nevada Democrat said.
Though they represent less than 1 percent of the federal budget, earmarks have become a symbol of what’s wrong in Washington when lawmakers are scrambling for ways to ease voter anxiety over spending, the deficit and national debt.
“The truth is that earmarks are simply not a good way to spend tax dollars. I believe that funding should always be based on merit, not politics,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat.
Asked about the fact that earmarks are a very small percentage of overall spending, Mrs. McCaskill said, “Earmarks impact the process far more than a lot of people realize.”
The remarks fit into the long-standing argument of outside groups who argue that earmarks have essentially been used to buy votes on bigger spending proposals.
“While a relative small dollar figure relative to the whole budget, earmarks are the grease that helps Congress slide the much larger, much more expensive bills through,” said Max Pappas, vice president of FreedomWorks, a grass-roots group founded in 1984 and headed by former House Speaker Dick Armey that supported tea party candidates in the midterm election.
But others are more skeptical, saying that there are more pressing fiscal issues, ranging from the Bush tax cuts to unemployment insurance, coming down the pipeline that will have a much larger impact on spending.
Sen. Mark Warner told MSNBC that eventually the “campaign rhetoric is going to hit the reality” of the country’s budget woes. “We are talking about stuff around the margins,” he said. If everyone agrees to end earmarks, the Virginia Democrat said, “so be it.”
Pressure started to build against Senate Republicans this year when House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, successfully ushered a similar rule change through the lower chamber. Then following the election, Mr. DeMint and Mr. Coburn led a group of conservative senators - six of them incoming freshmen - in calling for the ban.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, gave in on Monday and paved the way for the successful vote in the Republican Conference by announcing from the floor of the Senate that in order to show he was committed to reducing spending, he would break with his past to support a temporary freeze on earmarks.