GOP Swears Off Congressional Pork For 2 Years

Senators could vote on an amendment to ban earmarks on Wednesday, a day after the GOP caucus voted to abandon the practice. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell caved to Tea Party sentiment and said he would support a ban. But the resolution is non-binding, so it may be seen as a gesture rather than a rule.

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As Charles Rangel awaits news of his punishment in the House, Republicans in the Senate are setting new rules for themselves. Yesterday, Senate Republicans swore off earmarks, the system which lawmakers use to direct federal spending to specific projects. And this was after their leader made an about-face on the issue, as NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Mitch McConnell may be the leader of the Senate Republicans, but he's also a powerful appropriator who's steered hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of earmarks to his home state of Kentucky. A few days after the midterm elections, McConnell made it clear that he, for one, was not about to give up the right to request more earmarks. But other Senate Republicans, with ties to the Tea Party, were pushing for the GOP caucus to approve a two-year ban on earmarks. On Monday, McConnell did an about-face. In a speech on the Senate floor, he declared he, too, would support a ban on earmarks.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): Nearly every day that the Senate's been in session for the past two years, I've come down to this very spot, and said that Democrats were ignoring the wishes of the American people. When it comes to earmarks, I won't be guilty of the same thing.

WELNA: Ditto for the entire GOP caucus. Last night, behind closed doors, its members approved, by voice vote, a nonbinding, two-year moratorium on seeking earmarks.

South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint was the chief sponsor of that resolution. He says McConnell's change of heart was decisive for its adoption.

Senator JIM DEMINT (Republican, South Carolina): He saw that it was going to be divisive, and this move is just good for our party.

WELNA: Still, other Senate Republicans have grave misgivings about swearing off earmarks. Having lost the GOP primary to Mike Lee, a Tea Party-backed challenger, Utah's Robert Bennett is about to retire.

Senator ROBERT BENNETT (Republican, Utah): I think when people begin to recognize the impact on their individual states, they may decide the earmark ban is not a good idea.

WELNA: Nor does Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski. She may well keep her seat, after running a write-in campaign against GOP challenger Joe Miller, who supports a ban on earmarks.

Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): It ties the hands of the legislative body. The Constitution says that the power of the purse is with the legislative body. We are effectively handing that over to the executive branch. I think that that's misplaced. I don't think that we should be doing it.

WELNA: But it's not just Republicans pushing to end earmarks.

Senator CLAIRE MCCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): This power-of-the-purse argument is, you know, horseradish.

WELNA: Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill has joined forces with Republican Jim DeMint to ban earmarks altogether in the Senate.

Sen. MCCASKILL: It is a process that's fundamentally flawed, and it should be easy to reform it. And how are we ever going to do the hard stuff if we're not willing to do what should be easy?

WELNA: McCaskill and DeMint hope to force their Senate colleagues to vote on banning earmarks in the lame-duck session that started this week. Still, only one other Democrat, Colorado's Mark Udall, has joined that effort, while many Republicans say they won't feel bound by the GOP resolution passed last night.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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