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Senate GOP Split Over Earmarks

Senate Republicans, who remain deeply divided over how to handle the controversial issue of earmarks, will meet this week to hash out whether they should follow their House counterparts and impose a moratorium on the practice.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said Thursday that his colleagues would discuss the issue following the enactment of moratoriums by House Democrats and Republicans. But he acknowledged no consensus exists within the Senate GOP.

“We’re going to discuss it and see what to do. We have different views within our caucus,” Alexander said.

While some lawmakers such as Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) have hailed the House moves, others have reacted coolly.

In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on Friday, Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) argued that Congressional “incompetence” is to blame for rising deficits and that a one-year earmark moratorium will do no good.

“Congress has long demonstrated an innate incompetence in restraining itself. And a proposal to curb spending that is being floated by many of my colleagues — a one year moratorium on earmarks, those special provisions members insert into bills to direct funds to their districts or states — will do no good,” Inhofe wrote.

“Earmarks are nothing more than a distraction from the real spending and debt crisis facing our nation. … Howling about earmarks provides convenient political cover for big spenders who vote for budget-busting bills. At the end of the day, railing against earmarks does nothing to curb federal spending,” he added.

A senior GOP leadership aide said the Conference is split and that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would use the meeting as a forum for his Members to discuss the issue and see if there are any areas of agreement. Although a date has not been set for the meeting, McConnell decided to hold the discussion after the issue came up during a luncheon with his leadership team on Thursday.

One House Republican, who requested anonymity, said the self-imposed, across-the-board earmark ban was not a popular decision within the House GOP Conference. “They only did something on earmarks because the Democrats did it,” the Member said.

Democrats on Wednesday announced a ban on earmarks for private companies.

The GOP Member added that several rank-and-file Republicans felt that leadership forced their hands by announcing support for a ban in a press release the night before the Thursday morning Conference-wide vote.

A second House Republican said the ban might have been rejected if it were decided on a secret ballot.

And while the ban may have scored some political points, GOP aides said they are still trying to figure out how it affects huge authorizing bills, such as those that authorize transportation- and defense-related spending.

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said his staff was still looking at how the earmark ban would affect defense-related authorization requests for items such as body armor and other supplies for soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

McKeon added that requests for life-saving gear for the military aren’t “self-serving.”

“It will depend on the definition of an earmark,” McKeon said. “We will not be having earmarks on authorization bills.”

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