A group of Senate conservatives issued an early challenge to their Republican colleagues, calling on them in an open letter to support a ban on earmarks — a stance the House GOP embraced earlier this year.
"Americans want Congress to shut down the earmark favor factory, and next week I believe House and Senate Republicans will unite to stop pork-barrel spending," said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican. "Instead of spending time chasing money for pet projects, lawmakers will be able to focus on balancing the budget, reforming the tax code and repealing the costly health care takeover."
The earmark battle may be the first test of strength for the Senate conservative bloc led by Mr. DeMint, who has shown a willingness to clash with his own leaders in Washington and could soon be joined by a number of like-minded conservatives in the wake of the midterm elections.
In the letter sent Tuesday to Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Republican Conference, Mr. DeMint and nine other Senate Republicans — including six incoming freshman — announced their plan to pursue a rule change at the group's Nov. 16 meeting.
Pressure started to build against Senate Republican leaders in March after their House counterparts voted to ban members this year from requesting earmarks. Since then, nearly every member has stuck to the pledge and House leaders now hope to extend the ban for another year, arguing that it will help them build credibility as budget cutters.
But getting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on board has proven difficult. He voted for a ban and against a similar proposal two days apart in March, and recently expressed only lukewarm interest in ending the practice.
Appearing Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation," the Kentucky Republican said that he would be "willing to consider" a moratorium, but "the problem is that it doesn't save any money."
"What we really need to do … is to concentrate on reducing spending and reducing debt," he said. "This debate doesn't save any money, which is why it's kind of exasperating to some of us who really want to cut spending."
Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan spending watchdog group, said that Mr. McConnell, a member of the appropriations committee, has "earmarking in his DNA."
"It is something he's politically grown up with and something that he likes to do," Mr. Ellis said. "So he finds changing that or losing that power as an anathema."
The effort is also likely to meet resistance from a number of senior GOP senators, who have staunchly defended the practice as a congressional prerogative whose impact on the deficit has been greatly overstated by critics.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, has been particularly outspoken, saying in a statement: "It would be nothing short of criminal to go to all the trouble of electing great new anti-establishment senators, only to have them cede to the executive branch their constitutional power and obligation, which is exactly what a moratorium on earmarks would do."
Though earmarks account for less than 1 percent of federal spending, they have become symbolic of the worst abuses of Congress, with former members serving prison time for trading earmarks for gifts.
"We'll never be trusted to be the party of less spending while we're rationalizing more spending through earmarks," said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican. "Earmarks do nothing to hold the executive branch accountable. In fact, earmarks are the gateway drug to spending addiction in Washington. Major spending bills often pass because they contain earmarks."
Democrats, since taking control in 2007, have prohibited members from benefiting personally from earmarks and have required every earmark request to be posted on a member's website. The transparency allows watchdog groups to track the formerly murky process.
The debate also took center stage at times during the campaign season, where nearly every non-incumbent GOP Senate candidate and a slew of House hopefuls tried to ease voter concern over federal spending by swearing off earmarks themselves and showing a willingness to stop the practice entirely.
The other Republican senators who signed off on the earmark-policy change included: John Cornyn of Texas, John Ensign of Nevada and Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, along with Sens.-elect Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
Asked whether House Republican leaders were pushing Mr. McConnell to embrace a moratorium, Michael Steel, spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, said, "Rep. Boehner leaves running the Senate to Sen. McConnell."
The apparent split is creating an interesting political dynamic on Capitol Hill, where Mr. Boehner appears to be getting more outright support from President Obama than Mr. McConnell.
As a senator, Mr. Obama, like most of his colleagues, initially requested earmarks. But by 2008, in the midst of the presidential campaign, he had sworn off them, and even voted for a failed earmark moratorium offered by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential candidate.
Following the midterm elections last week, Mr. Obama told reporters that in a rush to get things done the last two years, he signed a bunch of bills with earmarks in them and that "I've got to take responsibility" in the fight against pork-barrel spending.
"I'm a strong believer that the earmarking process in Congress isn't what the American people really want to see when it comes to making tough decisions about how taxpayer dollars are spent," he said.
Mr. Obama also said that he was open to talking with House Republicans about their plan to extend their moratorium.
"That's something I think we can work on together," he said.
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