WASHINGTON — Fresh off the tea party's show of election might, GOP Sen. Jim DeMint said Tuesday he'll force a showdown next week with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other old guard Republicans over "earmarked" pet projects that DeMint and other victors last week made a symbol of out-of-control deficit spending.
The South Carolina Republican, buoyed by support from six GOP freshman, is optimistic he'll win a change in internal GOP rules to effectively bar any Republican from seeking earmarks.
"Americans want Congress to shut down the earmark favor factory, and next week I believe House and Senate Republicans will unite to stop pork barrel spending," DeMint said.
DeMint won backing from 25 Senate Republicans, including McConnell, earlier this year to impose an earmark ban on Republicans and Democrats alike. Despite winning the support of a majority of Republicans, the proposal was easily defeated by Democrats and 14 pro-earmark Republicans. Thirty-three of 41 Senate Republicans then sought earmarks in this year's unfinished roster of spending bills.
McConnell, however, isn't enthusiastic about the idea of a ban now. And he finds himself caught in the middle of an unwelcome battle dividing his party and opening it to criticism from anti-pork tea party activists who helped Republicans take back the House and elect several anti-earmark senators.
House Republicans already have such a rule in place and are about to renew it, but both House and Senate Democrats are strongly opposed.
Earmarks include road and bridge projects, grants to local police department and community development projects, among many, many others.
McConnell says giving up earmarks would provide a "blank check" to President Barack Obama because his administration would determine exclusively where money for popular programs would go. The proposed ban wouldn't save any money, McConnell says.
"Every president, Republican or Democrat, would like to have a blank check from Congress to do whatever he chooses to do," McConnell said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation last week. "You could eliminate every congressional earmark and you would save no money. It's really an argument about discretion."
But an argument it is, and an uncomfortable one for McConnell and other Republican old-timers since it puts them at odds with tea party activists who say pork barrel spending is at the center of what's wrong with Washington.
And it's not lost on incumbents that earmark refuseniks Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Joe Miller, R-Alaska, beat incumbent members of the pork-dispensing Senate Appropriations Committee in GOP primary contests earlier this year. One of those incumbents, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, still may survive after running a write-in campaign against Miller in the Nov. 2 election. Votes are still being counted there.
Most earmarks have merit, but a handful became outsized symbols of wasteful spending, such as the $200 million-plus, later canceled "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska. Earmarks also are blamed for a "pay to play" culture in which lobbyists and business executives seeking earmarks lubricate the system with campaign contributions.
All but a few of the 13-member GOP freshman class made campaign pledges that they wouldn't seek earmarks.
"Ending earmarks is an important first step toward getting our fiscal house in order. These special pet projects have become a symbol of Washington's 'pay-to-play' culture that must be stopped," said Sen.-elect Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.
But the newcomers are running into a phalanx of old school Republicans who defend the practice. They argue that they know the needs of their states better than Washington bureaucrats and that earmarks totaled only about one-half of 1 percent of the $3.5 trillion 2010 federal budget, about $16 billion.
Based on the vote earlier this year, DeMint would seem to have the votes to prevail in his anti-earmark campaign. But the earlier measure would have barred earmarks for both Democrats and Republicans. Tuesday's vote would only affect Republicans; majority Democrats could still seek earmarks — prospect that some Republicans say is unfair.
The upcoming vote also will be by a secret ballot, which means that anyone who publicly voted for the moratorium earlier this year could change their mind and not be held to account.
At the same time, DeMint is unpopular with many Republicans. He helped tea party favorites like Ken Buck, R-Colo., Sharron Angle, R-Nev., and Christine O'Donnell win their nominations but prove to be weak candidates in the general election.
GOP defenders of earmarks are invoking Obama — who endorsed an earmark moratorium the day after the election — in their campaign to preserve the practice.
"The only winner in this thing would be Obama, and I'm just not going to cede our authority to Obama," said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. "I can't think of anything worse than to have all these great tea party people who I worked so hard to get elected come in and cede their power and authority to the president."
"Only Congress — not the president — appropriates funds," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in a floor speech earlier this year. "When Tennesseans come to see me about making Center Hill and Wolf Creek Dams safe or improving housing at Fort Campbell, my job is not to give them President Obama's telephone number."