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GOP Splits as Senate Defeats Earmark Moratorium

The rift in the Senate Republican Conference over banning earmarks was on full display Tuesday as 15 GOP Senators joined most Democrats in killing a two-year moratorium on targeted spending provisions for Members’ pet projects.

Joining 51 Democrats and two Democratic-leaning Independents, both centrists and conservatives voted down Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) amendment to establish an earmark moratorium for fiscal years 2010 and 2011. The 68-29 vote came on the eve of the GOP’s expected Wednesday night meeting on whether to institute an internal ban on earmark requests.

Already, Wednesday’s meeting was shaping up to be more a political exercise designed to assuage the concerns of a handful of conservatives rather than something that would produce a unified party position. Still, supporters of the ban noted that with all but one GOP leader supporting the amendment, it appeared there were enough votes internally to institute a party pledge to refrain from earmark requests.

But those leadership votes may be misleading, given the hands-off approach that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other leaders have taken on the issue. McConnell called Wednesday’s meeting in response to last week’s House GOP leadership decision to institute a Conference-wide moratorium on earmark requests.

DeMint said before the vote that he hopes McConnell and other Senate leaders will push the issue during the meeting Wednesday.

“I think we’re seeing strong leadership in the House, and I hope we’ll see it in the Senate,” DeMint said. “We’ll see what they say tomorrow, but I think we have a culture of spending here, and Republicans are the ones that have to step up and stop it. And so, if we keep trying to play the spending game, we’re not going to win the trust of the American people.”

McConnell has been a less-than-enthusiastic supporter of earmark moratoria, but he voted with DeMint on Tuesday. On Friday, McConnell seemed to hint that he did not support restricting earmarks when he noted at a press conference that even when Congress does not earmark money, it is often misspent by the executive branch.

Before the vote, McConnell was repeatedly asked whether he would ask his Members to support a moratorium on requests, but he would only say: “We’re going to have a conference tomorrow afternoon at 5:30 and discuss the earmark issue, which is very much on the minds of Members now, after the actions taken … by House Democrats and House Republicans. It would be hard for me to predict what will come of that meeting, but we intend to have a full discussion of it tomorrow afternoon at 5:30.”

Critics say McConnell, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, has sent strong signals that he would like the issue to die.

“He’s telegraphed since he brought this [issue] up that we’re not going to do anything,” one Senate GOP aide said.

The aide noted that McConnell appointed an internal task force in 2008 to come up with recommendations regarding earmarks, but little was done to implement its recommendations.

GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), who also sits on the Appropriations panel, was the only member of GOP leadership to vote against the DeMint amendment Tuesday, but he did support a similar effort in 2008.

“I supported it before because I thought we needed some reforms, and we’ve taken some reforms,” Alexander said of the increased transparency of earmark requests.

Alexander continued: “If you have a couple of bad acts at the Grand Ole Opry, you don’t cancel the Opry. You cancel the bad acts, and what we need to do is make sure is that if we have reforms that need to be had or abuses that need to be stopped, that we do that. And we’ve taken some steps to do that.”

One senior Senate GOP aide indicated that Republican leaders’ apparent reluctance to embrace an earmark moratorium is merely reflecting the will of the broader conference, particularly since they have watched the Obama administration dole out 2009 economic stimulus money. President Barack Obama made a point of telling lawmakers to keep the stimulus free of earmarks, a situation that gave executive branch agencies almost exclusive say over where stimulus funds have been spent.

“The Conference was trending toward limiting earmarks for the past several years, but the way the stimulus was spent has reversed some of the enthusiasm for relinquishing spending authority to the Obama administration,” the senior aide said. “I doubt there will be any final resolution on the issue at Wednesday’s meeting.”

The aide added: “There is a key distinction between earmark bans that save money and ones that are a statement of policy. There are a number of Senate Republicans who have supported a one-year ban because it includes a corresponding spending reduction, but that does not necessarily apply to a ban similar to the House measure that does not save taxpayers money.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), another past supporter of earmark bans, said he has had a change of heart because he realized eliminating spending for lawmakers’ pet projects does not actually reduce overall spending. He said he gave a presentation to his colleagues on the issue during the Republicans’ regular Tuesday lunch. Inhofe singled out two earmarks targeted for elimination by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in recent years. Though one was eliminated and the other remained in the bill, neither result altered the amount of Congressional spending in the underlying bills.

“The unfortunate thing about many politicians is that they look toward public perception,” Inhofe said, noting anti-earmark groups and the politicians who support them “make their people believe that if you kill an earmark you’re somehow saving money. It’s not.”

In addition to Alexander and Inhofe, Republicans voting against the earmark ban included Sens. Kit Bond (Mo.), Jim Bunning (Ky.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), Judd Gregg (N.H.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), Dick Lugar (Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Pat Roberts (Kan.), Richard Shelby (Ala.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), George Voinovich (Ohio) and Roger Wicker (Miss.). Bond, Cochran, Collins, Gregg, Hutchison, Murkowski, and Voinovich are appropriators.

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