Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell quelled an intraparty fight Monday when he reluctantly embraced an earmark ban demanded by the GOP’s conservative wing.
In a surprise floor speech, the Kentucky Republican said that he was joining “the Republican leadership in the House in supporting a ban on earmarks,” despite his continued belief that earmarking is a Constitutional right of lawmakers and a necessary practice.
“I’m not wild about turning over more spending authority to the executive branch,” he said Monday. But the “only way we will be able to turn the corner and save our future is if elected leaders like me make the kinds of difficult decisions voters are clearly asking us to make.”
By agreeing to support a ban on earmarks, McConnell, a longtime appropriator, at least temporarily put off a showdown with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the conservative agitator who has led the charge for a ban. McConnell’s move, combined with the White House’s announcement Monday of its support for a temporary earmark ban, may put more pressure on Senate Democrats to address the issue, too.
“This was just becoming a distraction,” a senior GOP aide said, explaining McConnell’s announcement. The aide added that today’s planned closed-door vote on the ban was shaping up to be an ugly fight between traditional legislators in the Conference and the increasingly large faction of conservative reformers.
“McConnell listened, and he’s reflecting the will of the caucus on this, and it’s going to make everything a lot easier,” the aide said.
While McConnell’s speech did not directly address the internal politics of his Conference, he acknowledged that the public was on the side of reformers. He argued that Democrats were on the losing end of the elections this year in part because they ignored the public. “When it comes to earmarks, I won’t be guilty of the same thing,” he said.
As lawmakers made their way back to Washington, D.C., on Monday, it appeared as if DeMint and McConnell would find themselves in a battle over who has the most sway within their Conference.
Although DeMint has lined up the support of Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.), most of the incoming freshman class and other conservatives, opponents of the ban — led by Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.) — still appeared to make up roughly half of the Conference.
During a tea party rally organized by Americans for Prosperity to show support for the ban, DeMint warned his colleagues that, “if the Senate Republicans fail to pass a ban on earmarks tomorrow, [then] obviously they have not gotten the message.”
Although McConnell has not been whipping the vote outright, he has made clear in private conversations with Senate Republicans that he favored earmarks. “There’s a lot of pressure on them to cave in,” DeMint said to the dismay of the gathered activists.