Republicans sought to burnish their tarnished credentials as foes of pork-barrel projects last week, winning cheers from spending critics but a wait-and-see response from other conservatives and the party’s grass roots.
“Like mosquitoes in a nudist colony, Republicans will have more than enough opportunities to show the voters we deserve our conservative brand back by fighting wasteful spending,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “Our voters are clamoring for us to fight on behalf of taxpayers.”
Led by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, conservative Republicans overcame initial opposition from Democratic leaders to a broader definition of pork in a rules change that will require full disclosure from each lawmaker who sponsors so-called “earmark” provisions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada had wanted a narrower definition of pork, which Mr. DeMint and his supporters said would have only applied to 5 percent of the billions of dollars in pork-barrel spending that Congress approves each year.
After Republicans, with the help of a handful of Democrats, beat back an attempt to table or kill the DeMint amendment, Mr. Reid refused to move to a final vote Thursday — an attempt that triggered an outcry from Republicans and conservative bloggers.
When the smoke cleared Friday after a bitter two-day exchange of charges and countercharges, Mr. Reid agreed to an “earmark disclosure that is even stronger than what I had originally proposed,” Mr. DeMint said.
It was a strategic victory for Republicans, who had lost the support of many fiscally conservative voters angered by the pork-ridden bills the Republican Congress enacted over the past several years. A number of Republican state chairmen said pork-barrel spending was one of the reasons behind the party’s House and Senate losses in November’s midterm elections.
“American citizens want to see earmarking come to an end, and now that they have to put their names to it, the real question is, will this stop earmarking? Have we really accomplished much?” said Ron Carey, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party.
“I think it is going to take more than one specific action to show we are serious about getting back to our bedrock conservative principles,” Mr. Carey said Friday. “While this is encouraging, we need to see consistent adherence to conservative values over a sustained period of time before we are going to declare that our Republican leaders have gotten back on track.”
Former Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Toomey, president of the pro-tax-cut group Club for Growth, said it was “a solid first step, but by itself it is not enough for the Republicans to re-establish their credentials as fiscal conservatives.”
“After all, this is just about disclosure,” Mr. Toomey said. “It doesn’t actually limit or prevent these kinds of earmarks. That will require the necessary follow-through by Republicans.”
Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who heads Freedom Works, another conservative grass-roots group, was similarly dubious about what the disclosures would achieve.
“Democrats are not going to get into trouble because of this disclosure because of the public’s disposition for pork projects in their Democratic districts. It may diminish Republican pork, but it will not result in any reduction in Democratic pork,” Mr. Armey said.