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Senate Republicans are headed for a showdown over earmark reform in the lame-duck session, with Senators on both sides of the issue preparing for combat on the floor and within the GOP Conference.
Sen. James Inhofe said last week that he plans to stand up for earmarks and take on anti-earmark crusaders in his own party when Congress returns after the November elections.
“I’m trying not to hurt any of my fellow conservatives, but after the election, [I’ll be] spending whatever time necessary on the floor to end this whole thing about earmarks,” the Oklahoma Republican said.
Asked to clarify Tuesday, Inhofe said he plans a series of floor speeches to serve as “an education to let people know what the truth is, what the real issue is. It’s a phony issue, and it’s one somebody has to tell the truth about instead of just trying to demagogue it.”
Meanwhile, fellow Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn said Tuesday that he plans to try to push an earmark moratorium vote on his caucus in the near future, perhaps next year. During the lame duck, Coburn said he will likely try to force a vote on his bill to bring more transparency to the earmark process by creating a central database of lawmaker requests, among other things.
“They’re going to get a vote on it, so let’s see how they vote,” he said.
The issue highlights a long-standing schism between the home-state rivals, but Inhofe and Coburn also represent two sides of an issue that threatens to divide the GOP in the aftermath of what are expected to be dramatic gains for the party in both chambers in November.
Many of the new GOP Members are expected to be beneficiaries of the conservative tea party movement, which has demonized earmarks as wasteful examples of runaway government spending. But many Republican Senators think they have a constitutional duty to determine spending priorities and that eliminating earmarks only gives bureaucrats more power to decide where federal dollars are spent.
Earmarks, or Congressionally directed spending, allow lawmakers to fund pet projects in their home states or districts without waiting for the relevant Cabinet agency to approve a funding request.
House Republicans have been in the throes of the earmark debate for several years, and that debate is likely to only intensify if the party wins the majority in that chamber. Senate Republicans are less likely to retake the majority, but there is little doubt that Coburn will have an influx of new allies.
Sen. John McCain, a longtime earmark foe, said it matters little whether Republicans win enough seats to take back the Senate or whether they just have a more powerful minority.
“I think it’s whether we understand the mandate of the election. People, they want it to stop, they want business as usual in Washington to stop. If there are some people who don’t get that message, I think they’re holding a losing hand,” the Arizona Republican said.
Still, Senators on both sides of the issue said there won’t be enough new Members to do what House Republicans did last year, when they swore off earmarks for the remainder of the Congress.
“Keep in mind that pretty overwhelmingly, I would be in the minority on earmarks by a lot,” earmark opponent Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said. “I think there are only six or seven Senators that don’t do them. Depending on the elections in November, there may be a few more, but I think it will continue to be the minority view in the Senate.”
Senate Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran said he would not “voluntarily” give up his “constitutional imperative” to decide how the nation spends its money.
“It’ll be a spirited debate, as it always is, and I hope we continue to win — on my side,” the Mississippi Republican said.
In March, 15 GOP Senators went on record as opposing a one-year ban on Senate earmarks, but that floor vote belies the private support many Republicans have for the practice, sources said. Plus, Senate GOP leaders, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), regularly request earmarks.
Senate GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander, an appropriator who favors earmarks, sidestepped the question of whether a flood of new tea-party-backed Senators would change the intraparty debate.
“I think we should wait until November to find out what they say to us, rather than trying to say to them what we’re going to do in November,” the Tennessee lawmaker said. “We’re going to focus first on what we agree on and when we find things that we might not, why then we’ll just acknowledge that we have differences of opinion and go forward.”
In the House, Republican leadership aides suggested they ducked an earmark fight in the “A Pledge to America” document released last week in part because their hand may be strengthened by a tea-party-inspired crop of 50 to 70 freshmen.
House Minority Leader John Boehner mounted several attempts to get his party to accept stiffer earmark rules with only middling success before the bulk of the Conference agreed to a one-year moratorium this year.
But as a newly minted Speaker, the Ohio Republican would presumably have maximum clout to get his Conference in line for whatever reforms he wants.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the leading anti-earmark crusader in the House, said the looming intraparty fight will be Boehner’s first big test after the elections.
“It will say a lot about the direction of the Conference,” he said. “I’m very worried. I think the patience of people out there, not just the Republican base, but independents and others, is pretty thin here. If we go right back to the trough, it won’t be pretty.”
The influx of new blood would strengthen Boehner’s hand, Flake said.
“Right now, you’ve still got a lot of the old bulls, the old appropriators, who want to go back to the trough,” he said. “About a third of the conference will be new people who don’t have a history of this and don’t think that’s how the town should operate.”
Flake said one of the best parts of “A Pledge to America” was a commitment to open rules on spending bills, with any amendment striking spending made in order.
But an outright ban on earmarks seems highly unlikely. Only a small number of Republicans swore off earmarks in previous years. Some bills, such as the annual military construction bill, are typically packed with earmarks, aides noted.
Several House Republicans have also made it clear that they intend to return to earmarking next year. “Some have realized the pain from not being able to be responsive to their districts,” one Republican House aide said.
The aide also noted that an outright ban could backfire by sending the process into the shadows, with lawmakers privately pressuring agencies to fund projects with no disclosure.
“None of that stuff has been decided,” another House GOP aide said. “Nobody knows where new members of the Conference would be on the reality of how you exercise your constitutional responsibility without devolving into the old system.”
House and Senate Democrats have already had several rounds of reforms since taking over in 2007, including making earmark requests public and, in the House, banning earmarks to for-profit companies.