Washington — When Senate Republicans gather for their conference lunch, it’s usually a low-key affair: sips of diet cola and quiet conversation, and perhaps a few minutes of caucus business. On Tuesday, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina will disturb the peace: He’ll hold a secret-ballot vote on whether to ban GOP senators from securing earmarks (discretionary federal dollars) for home-state projects.
In conversation with Senate GOP aides, it is clear that DeMint’s push for an earmark moratorium is far from a sure thing; in fact, it makes many Republicans uneasy. In the Senate — unlike in the House, where Republican leaders have voiced their opposition to the practice — earmarks remain quite popular with numerous conservative lawmakers. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.), for example, detailed his support for earmarks on National Review Online last week. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has also weighed in against DeMint’s maneuver, arguing that earmarks are more “complicated” than DeMint thinks, and but a fraction of the federal budget. (In fiscal year 2010, $15.9 billion in congressional pork was allocated, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.)
In recent days, DeMint has brushed aside the pushback. Top GOP leaders like Sen. John Cornyn, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee have signed on to his cause. High-profile senators-elect like Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, among others, have also voiced their support.
With an anti-spending mood sweeping the GOP ranks, sources close to DeMint say that he is both hopeful and confident heading into Tuesday’s vote. They point out that on-the-fence Republicans are getting pressure from all sides: Even President Obama is criticizing pork-barrel politics.
In his weekly address, Obama noted that he agrees “with those Republican and Democratic members of Congress who’ve recently said that in these challenging days, we can’t afford what are called earmarks.” Addressing them, he says, “would have an important impact.” Says one GOP aide: “Who wants to be outflanked on spending by Obama?”
Of course, even if it passes, DeMint’s proposal would be non-binding, and senators could find ways to insert pork into appropriations bill. One senior aide reports that “many senators are skeptical; they wonder why we’re making of show of this when all it does is hand over more spending control to the Democrats.”
Win or lose, the closed-door vote will be an early indicator of DeMint’s upper-chamber influence in the coming session. The vote will also give earmark hawks an opportunity to needle those who are wobbly on the issue: FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots are urging activists to rally their senators to get behind the proposed moratorium, and promise to keep to the issue in the public eye after Tuesday.
Another outsider who’s keeping close watch over the conference vote is Joe Ricketts, the owner of the Chicago Cubs and former chief executive of TD Ameritrade. Ricketts founded a new political-action committee, Taxpayers Against Earmarks, earlier this year, and funneled millions into anti-earmark ads aired during the 2010 midterms.
On his website, EndingSpending.com, Ricketts is charting the current whip count in the caucus, based on public statements. Brian Baker, the group’s president, points out that the DeMint proposal should pass tomorrow, since two earmark-ban amendments were voted on earlier this year (neither passed) and received a majority of votes from Senate Republicans.
But Baker isn’t resting easy: He says that when the doors close, senators could change their tune. His group is eyeing GOP senators who voted “yes” to earmark bans in March and are susceptible to a flip, based on his group’s research. On the PAC’s radar: Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
Ricketts tells NRO that if DeMint’s ban does not become conference policy, his group will not forget come 2012, when a handful of GOP senators are up for reelection. “On the web, we have a map of the United States that shows every congressional district and Senate seat, along with every earmark proposed by elected individuals for the current federal budget,” he says. “When it comes time for election, constituents will be able to log on and see what their elected officials are up to.”
“For the people who don’t use earmarks, we call them ‘heroes’; they are certainly patriots,” Ricketts says. “They are the people that are fighting the battle. The people who do use earmarks, well, we call them hooligans. It’s not a nice word, but from my point of view, it ought to be a lot worse.”
“Big spenders will not be able to hide in the shadows, we will be watching,” Baker warns. “Perhaps the Senate Republican Conference should invite Senators Bennett and Specter to brief them this Tuesday about how much the voters like ‘business as usual’ in Washington, before they vote on the DeMint-Coburn moratorium resolution.”