A growing number of Republicans want to lift the earmark ban that has been embraced by President Obama and Congress.
The GOP lawmakers say the moratorium should be reconsidered after the 2012 election, when there is a chance that Republicans will have control of the House and the Senate.
The earmark issue divides Senate Republicans, and thus is usually not discussed during their weekly meetings. But it is again front and center because of an effort spearheaded by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to permanently ban earmarks.
Thirteen Republican senators last week voted against the Toomey-McCaskill bill. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, who has a long track record of securing earmarks for his home state of Kentucky, quietly voted to approve it.
The measure has alarmed some Republican senators, even those considered among the chamber’s most conservative members.
“It’s a cessation of a constitutional power of Congress,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the senior Republican on the Budget Committee.
The Senate Republican Conference adopted a two-year conference-wide moratorium on earmarks in November 2010 after picking up seats in the midterm election.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) worked for years before successfully implementing an earmark ban, and he doesn’t plan to let up anytime soon.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is in Boehner’s camp. The GOP front-runner in the 2012 presidential race supports a permanent ban on earmarks.
Obama, meanwhile, endorsed an earmark moratorium during his 2011 State of the Union address.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has frequently defended Congress’s right to direct federal spending on local projects, and did so again last week.
Reid has said Obama is “absolutely wrong” on earmarks and should “back off.”
Sessions claimed he was an enthusiastic supporter of the moratorium “because the process had been abused.”
Sessions and other Republicans, however, do not want to give the executive branch the everlasting power to direct spending in their districts.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), a former House appropriator, said Republicans should consider agreeing to lift the moratorium at the end of 2012.
“What we agreed to do, and I think on balance it was a good policy, was have a moratorium for this Congress, which we have done and with which we are complying, and then revisit the issue,” he said.
Some Republicans say there is broader support for revisiting the earmark ban, noting last week’s amendment was a “message vote” that had no chance of passing. It mustered only 40 votes.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) voted for Toomey’s amendment, though he has made clear he would prefer to reform the practice of earmarking, rather than end it.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a member of the Appropriations Committee, said that “we have some done some pretty substantive reforms,” adding there would be much more transparency in the future, with lawmakers posting project requests online.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the most outspoken opponents of the earmark ban, said momentum is gathering to overturn the moratorium. He said GOP colleagues increasingly realize they have ceded too much authority on funding home-state projects to the Obama administration.
“I think they’re learning,” said Inhofe. “It’s been long in the making, but people now realize — more people every week realize that argument is real, that we’re ceding our authority to Obama.
Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations panel, has vowed to revisit the moratorium this year.
Still, Boehner poses a major obstacle, because even if the Senate revives the use of earmarks at some point, he would seek to remove them in House-Senate conference discussions.
Boehner has never solicited earmarks during his congressional career, and many of the conservatives in his conference would balk at resurrecting them.
“I think the American people would be outraged if earmarks became a regular process in bills again,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), one of Boehner’s closest friends.
Burr said he does not see the earmark moratorium lifting while Boehner is Speaker.
Boehner is seeking to move a controversial transportation bill through the lower chamber that, unlike prior highway measures, does not have any earmarks.
There are a fair number of House Republican critics of Boehner’s earmark moratorium, including Reps. Ron Paul (Texas) and Don Young (Alaska).
Controversy surrounding earmarks surfaced again this week after an investigation by The Washington Post found that 33 members of Congress directed more than $300 million in earmarks and other spending measures to public projects proximate to properties they owned, potentially enhancing their value.
Toomey and McCaskill have said they will offer their Earmark Elimination Act again as an amendment to the transportation authorization bill, which is due to reach the Senate floor soon.
“The earmarking system wastes taxpayer dollars, creates the appearance of corruption and undermines public confidence in the legislative process,” Toomey said Wednesday. “Although our amendment failed last week, nothing in Washington gets done without sustained effort, and we will not stop until we eliminate this wasteful earmarking from the halls of Congress.”