Nov. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, faced with greater influence of lawmakers elected with Tea Party support, dropped his opposition to a plan by House Republican leaders to ban budget “earmarks” for lawmakers’ pet projects.
McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who has supported such projects in the past, today said he doesn’t apologize for his efforts to channel federal money to his home state for “vital projects” to clean up hazardous chemicals at two government facilities. Still, he said it is clear that the voters want both parties to be serious about cutting spending.
“Nearly every day that the Senate’s been in session for the past two years, I have come down to this spot and said that Democrats are ignoring the wishes of the American people,” McConnell said. “I won’t be guilty of the same thing.”
President Barack Obama said in a statement he welcomed McConnell’s decision to oppose earmarks. “I look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans to not only end earmark spending, but to find other ways to bring down our deficits,” the president said.
McConnell spoke as Congress returned for a lame-duck session following the Nov. 2 election, in which Republicans gained six seats in the Senate and took control of the House with a gain of at least 60 seats.
The Senate Republican caucus will meet tomorrow to pick leaders for the new Congress and vote on a proposal by Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina to ban lawmakers from proposing legislative earmarks that direct spending to specific projects, usually in their home states. House Republicans plan to vote on a similar proposal later this week. House Democrats didn’t attempt to ban them last year.
The caucus includes five newly elected Republicans who were backed by DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund. They will be eligible to vote on the earmarks issue even though they don’t take their seats in the Senate until January.
McConnell’s switch on the earmark issue signaled a recognition that DeMint and the people he helped elect, including Rand Paul of Kentucky, are a political force in the Senate.
In Kentucky’s Republican primary, Paul defeated the candidate McConnell backed, Trey Grayson, for the nomination to fill the Senate seat to be vacated by Jim Bunning, who is retiring. Paul ran with support of the Tea Party movement as did several other new Republican faces in the Senate, including Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida.
‘Symbolic of Waste’
“It’s symbolic of waste up here and people are annoyed by that,” Paul said regarding earmarks after the six newly elected senators met with the Republican leader.
Obama has previously identified a ban on earmarks as an area on which he and Republicans in Congress may be able to find agreement. Earmarks amount to about $16 billion a year. Eliminating them wouldn’t necessarily save taxpayers money as the funds would be spent for other purposes.
Still, Senate Democrats said they aren’t likely to end the practice of earmarks.
“I don’t think the earmark process will disappear,” said Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.
Violating the Constitution
Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa said he knew of no effort by his Democratic colleagues to try to ban the practice. A ban “flies in the face of the Constitution,” which, he said, gives Congress the power to direct “every dime that the federal government spends if we wanted to.”
Harkin, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. said he is “willing to stand up and defend any directed funding I have ever done.”
Earmarks are a legitimate exercise of congressional power “as long as the people know where it is and it’s out there in the open,” he said.
McConnell said he is “not wild about turning over more spending authority” to the president, particularly because such earmarks were needed to force the government to clean up radioactive waste at one facility and begin removing toxic chemicals at another.
Still, he said, “unless people like me show the American people that we’re willing to follow through on small or even symbolic things, we risk losing them on our broader efforts to cut spending and rein in government.”
Greasing the Skids
In a statement, DeMint said, “Earmarks have greased the skids for runaway spending and bad policy for decades.” He challenged Obama to follow through on his “promises to veto any bill” with earmarks.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said he will try to force a vote on an earmark moratorium on the first piece of legislation that the lame-duck Congress deals with in two days.
“Imposing a moratorium on earmarks is an important step that will -- as a matter of symbol and substance -- begin a new era of sobriety in Washington,” he said.
Coburn’s fellow Oklahoman, Senator Jim Inhofe, defended earmarks, saying they have “dramatically decreased over the last several years” since Congress required more disclosure. “If you restrict what Congress can do, that money goes back into the administration” and gives Obama more flexibility to spend it, he said. “Is there any question why President Obama embraced the ban on earmarks?”
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