Most Senate Republican leaders are hoping earmarks make a comeback, but after bowing to pressure from House Republicans and conservative elements in their Conference in 2010, some concede it might be difficult to roll back a self-imposed limit that remains politically popular with the GOP base.
The current temporary moratorium adopted by Senate Republicans and Democrats is set to expire at the end of this Congress, but with Republicans looking to control the House and Senate after the November elections, a return to Congressionally directed spending appears unlikely anytime soon.
“I am a ... recovering earmarker, like many of us are around here,” Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said.
“But I do think that the process has been abused. If we are ever going to return to an era where Congress has more of a role when it comes to appropriations, I think it’s going to be with significant changes and reforms. But at this point, everybody is sort of in agreement that the best thing to do is to keep the ban on.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Republican Conference vice chairman, said he could see a possibility for the return of earmarks. Blunt is a member of the Appropriations Committee, which, until the moratorium, had been the typical venue for earmarking.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) also said he believes that earmarks could return but only under a clear definition.
“There are still some questions about exactly what an earmark is,” said Kyl, who is retiring at the end of the year. “We have to have a common definition that everyone agrees to ... and it’s fine with me to have that done in statute.”
But Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) thinks earmarks could be gone for good: “I think the American people are right that earmarks have been a significant problem. That is why I support the moratorium.”
Asked whether he thinks they will return, Barrasso said, “Hopefully no time soon.”
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is key to how the Senate Republicans handle the issue.
As a longtime member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, McConnell is no stranger to earmarks and is known for his savvy political instincts.
That is why there was a collective gasp when McConnell — who had been an eloquent defender of the practice as one of Congress’ core responsibilities in controlling the power of the purse — agreed to the moratorium in November 2010.
McConnell’s move was more political necessity than a change of heart, sources said.
One Republican lawmaker said the Kentucky lawmaker was pushed to the right on the issue by the new makeup of the Conference after the 2010 elections, which saw a wave from tea-party-inspired candidates.