Will the GOP Take a Timeout From Earmarks?

A new crop of Republican senators will face their first test in Washington this week when Sen. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) offers a proposal for the GOP to take a two-year timeout from earmarks.

With the Republican-controlled House poised to adopt an earmark moratorium for the 112th Congress, the stage is set for a showdown in the Senate over DeMint’s proposal, which threatens to pit Tea Party-backed Republicans against what many consider an earmark-addicted GOP establishment.

Because there’s virtually no chance the Democrat-controlled Senate will follow the House’s lead by adopting a total earmark ban, DeMint is asking only his GOP colleagues to take the pledge.

The language of DeMint’s proposal mirrors the House earmark moratorium.  The vote on the DeMint proposal is to be conducted on November 16 by secret ballot in a closed room–a starkly different scenario from earlier this year when DeMint forced a Senate floor vote on the same issue.

A majority of Republicans voted with DeMint to support a moratorium on March 16.  This time around, the outcome is unpredictable.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.), despite voting with DeMint earlier this year, has declined to take a position on the latest effort.  McConnell said it would be tantamount to ceding control to President Obama.

“You could eliminate every congressional earmark and you would save no money.  It’s really an argument about discretion,” McConnell said.  “I’m sure the President would love to have a legislative blank check.”

Without the backing of McConnell, it could be hard to muster support from the handful of leadership allies who supported the moratorium in March.  Then there’s the wild card of the secret ballot, which shields Republicans from public scrutiny.

The floor vote in March won the support of 29 senators, 25 of whom were Republicans.

DeMint announced last Monday that 10 Republicans are co-sponsoring his proposal:  Senators Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Cornyn (Tex.), John Ensign (Nev.) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.)  and Senators-elect Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Ron Johnson (Wis), Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.).

In a post-election interview last week with National Journal, DeMint also named Senators-elect Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Rob Portman (Ohio) as potential allies.

That leaves five other new Republicans in question: Roy Blunt (Mo.), John Boozman (Ark.), Dan Coats (Ind.), John Hoevan (N.D.) and Jerry Moran (Kan.).

Republicans will control 47 seats in the 112th Congress, meaning DeMint would need to win the backing of 24 senators to approve the conference-wide moratorium.  He would easily win if no Republicans switched from the March 16 vote.

DeMint called the two-year moratorium an important test for his GOP colleagues in the wake of Election Day.  Grassroots conservatives and Tea Party activists have made government spending a signature issue this year, sweeping Republicans into office.  Failure to adopt an earmark moratorium could send a dispiriting message to voters.

In the House, the issue won’t be a problem.  Republicans could first ban earmarks at their own organizational meeting the week of November 15, then impose the rule for the entire House when they take control of the chamber in January.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.), a longtime critic of pork-barrel spending, called the moratorium “a win for taxpayers.”

“Now that we’ve agreed to cut small spending items,” Flake said, “we can begin to address the larger spending programs.”

That argument resonates with conservatives.  Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) calls earmarks the “gateway drug to federal spending addiction.”  In recent years, they’ve also become a corrupting force in Washington as lawmakers have repaid campaign donors with political favors.

That’s one reason DeMint considers the vote on November 16 to be so important.  It will set the tone for how Republicans govern.

As DeMint told National Journal last week, “I think we’ll see right away in the House and in the Senate whether or not Republicans are serious about what they ran on.”