Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has guaranteed North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven slots on the Appropriations and Energy and Natural Resources committees if he wins election in November as expected.
Although the Appropriations Committee — and those who serve on it — remains unpopular in some quarters of the Republican voting base, Hoeven's campaign said the reaction to McConnell's announcement has been overwhelmingly positive among North Dakota conservatives.
McConnell made the pledge earlier this year while in Bismarck to attend Hoeven's official campaign unveiling, which came after Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) announced he would retire.
"In the governor's decision process, he wanted to know that he'd have an opportunity to make a difference right away," Hoeven campaign manager Don Larson said Monday. "We haven't received any negative feedback."
Dorgan serves on Appropriations and Energy and Natural Resources. Hoeven, a popular chief executive in a conservative-leaning state, is projected to coast to victory on Nov. 2.
Seats on the House and Senate Appropriations committees have long been considered plum assignments, creating a demand that often required Members to build up seniority to secure a seat.
But as earmarks have fallen out of favor with conservatives, independent voters and GOP activists, political observers are questioning whether incoming Republican Senators will have much interest in serving on Appropriations.
In fact, some speculate that returning Republican Senators might be hesitant to serve on Appropriations, which will see seven slots open in November. Five of those are departing Republicans, and the GOP could be in line for more seats if the party scores big electoral gains in the fall.
Last month, the GOP activists who denied Sen. Bob Bennett another term listed his work as an appropriator among their reasons for ousting an incumbent with a conservative voting record. The Utah Republican failed to qualify for the June 22 primary ballot after finishing third in a vote of state convention delegates.
"As crazy as it would normally be to turn down an approps slot, I think some new Republicans will. It's easy to bash appropriators, and usually they deserve it. But it's still very tough to do if you are on the committee," a former Senate Republican leadership aide said. "There's nothing worse than having to vote against every bill your committee approves because there is pork in every one."
Some of the Republican Senate candidates who have made opposition to spending and deficits the centerpiece of their campaigns are expressing interest in Appropriations. But they don't necessarily covet the ability to direct taxpayer dollars to their state so much as desire to vote against pork-barrel spending.
Tim Bridgewater, one of the Republicans who beat Bennett for a spot on Utah's primary ballot, is one such candidate.
"Tim would accept a position on the Appropriations Committee if offered," campaign spokeswoman Tiffany Gunnerson said. "Tim is running for Senate to bring fiscal responsibility back to Washington, and the Appropriations Committee is a great place to start making a change."
Former Rep. Pat Toomey (R), running for an open Senate seat in Pennsylvania, is a longtime critic of earmarks. While serving as president of the Club for Growth, he made it a point to target incumbent Republicans whom he viewed as insufficiently conservative on spending and deficit issues.
But he, too, would relish an appointment to the panel, as would former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the Republican frontrunner in today's California Senate Republican primary.
"Pat Toomey would be happy to serve on the Appropriations Committee so he could most effectively fight against the wasteful pork spending that comes out of that committee," campaign spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik said.
Fiorina campaign spokeswoman Julie Soderlund said her boss "believes that part of the problem in Washington is that the right questions are not asked in Appropriations hearings. Instead of asking why a particular agency, department or program needs more money, Carly believes instead we should be asking what they are doing with the money they already have."
The Democratic Conference determines panel assignments for its Members according to the seniority of incumbent Senators and evaluations made by the Steering Committee and Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.). The Republicans operate similarly, with seniority playing a large role, but McConnell, as the leader, having the power beyond that.
According to the rules governing committee assignments for the GOP Conference, when there are multiple openings on a panel, half of those are filled through seniority and half are filled at the discretion of the leader. Because there will be at least five GOP openings on Appropriations, it is within McConnell's power to promise a slot to Hoeven.
The departing Republican appropriators are Bennett and retiring Sens. Kit Bond (Mo.), Sam Brownback (Kan.), Judd Gregg (N.H.) and George Voinovich (Ohio). However, only one Republican on Energy and Natural Resources, Sen. Jim Bunning (Ky.), is calling it quits, and should a Republican with seniority lay claim to this lone slot, McConnell's plans to assign it to Hoeven could be blocked.