Plans by House Democrats to bring back earmarks at the start of the next Congress have put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal Top GOP senator warns government funding deal unlikely this week Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot MORE (R-Ky.) in a tough spot.
McConnell, a longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, isn’t personally opposed to bringing back earmarks, but he is risk averse and doesn’t want to spark a fight with Tea Party conservatives and Republicans considering White House runs in 2024, say GOP lawmakers.
The GOP Senate leader has been coy when asked about the topic.
“I haven’t given any real thought to that. I did hear that Hoyer said that,” he said Tuesday, referring to House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerCapitol physician advises lawmakers against attending dinners, receptions during COVID-19 spike Congress ends its year under shadow of COVID-19 Overnight Defense: Defense bill among Congress’s year-end scramble | Iranian scientist’s assassination adds hurdles to Biden’s plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire MORE (D-Md.), who this month said earmarks would be back in January.
“That’s a decision, obviously, the majority decided to make over there, and it will be interesting how the Republicans in the House respond to it,” McConnell said.
A Republican senator who favors bringing back earmarks noted that McConnell opposed adopting the earmark ban in 2010 but eventually had to back down because of strong momentum for suspending earmarks within the party.
“It’s a good idea but politically folks will make a lot of hay out of it,” the GOP senator said of bringing back earmarks.
The lawmaker noted that two of the biggest proponents of the ban 10 years ago, former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSen.-elect Mark Kelly visits John McCain’s grave ahead of swearing-in McCain, Kristol battle over Tanden nomination Biden’s favorability rating rises while Trump’s slips: Gallup MORE (R-Ariz.), are no longer in Congress.
“McConnell is risk averse but McConnell wanted, very much wanted to keep earmarks and we just got run over by people like Jim DeMint and John McCain, but those folks are gone,” the lawmaker said.
“If the Democrats bring back earmarks in the House, how are we going to avoid it? Are we going to put one arm behind our backs?” the source added.
House Republicans adopted a conferencewide moratorium on earmarks in March 2010 and Senate Republicans voted for a two-year earmark ban within their conference in November of that year. GOP senators later extended the moratorium.
Senate Republicans last year added a permanent ban on earmarks to their conference rules, a move that was championed by Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseTrump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism The Memo: Trump election loss roils right Whoopi Goldberg blasts Republicans not speaking against Trump: ‘This is an attempted coup’ MORE (Neb.), one of several Senate Republicans seen as having White House aspirations.
But a number of Senate Republicans, such as Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyTop GOP senator warns government funding deal unlikely this week McConnell: COVID-19 relief will be added to omnibus spending package Bipartisan, bicameral group unveils 8 billion coronavirus proposal MORE (Ala.), Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiPressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal Bipartisan, bicameral group unveils 8 billion coronavirus proposal The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Mastercard – GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms MORE (Alaska) and Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoGraham: Trump should attend Biden inauguration ‘if’ Biden wins As Biden administration ramps up, Trump legal effort drags on The Hill’s 12:30 Report: Trump holds his last turkey pardon ceremony MORE (W.Va.) either favor bringing back earmarks or are open to the idea.
Murkowski, the chairwoman of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, says she’s talked to colleagues about bringing back earmarks.
“I have been part of smaller group discussions on this,” she said. “I’m one that says that this directed spending is important,” she said, adding “as long as it’s transparent.”
Murkowski said McConnell “is an institutionalist” and “understands earmarks.”
“We’ve had some good conversations about it,” she said. “He certainly knows where I’m coming from. He’s also on the Appropriations Committee.”
McConnell argued 10 years ago against adopting the earmark ban. Speaking to the Heritage Foundation in 2010, he warned it would give “a blank check” to the executive branch.
“Every president, Republican or Democrat, would like to have a blank check from Congress to do whatever he chooses to do,” he said.
But McConnell has to contend with opposition from conservatives in his caucus, including ambitious colleagues looking at running for president in 2024.
Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul says Fauci owes parents and students an apology over pandemic measures Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus Congress set for chaotic year-end sprint MORE (R-Ky.), McConnell’s home-state colleague, on Tuesday said it would be a “bad idea” to allow earmarks in Senate spending bills.
“The days when we had 6,000 earmarks on transportation bills was a bad idea,” Paul said.
Other Senate Republicans say they’re open to bringing back earmarks.
“I’m interested in it,” said Capito, a member of the Appropriations Committee. “We’ve lost touch with the ability to really help our communities and our states in really specific ways. Maybe not large, but meaningful.”
“Obviously West Virginia has been the beneficiary of some nice earmarks back in the day,” she added. “I would certainly look at it in a favorable light. I would have to see how it’s structured.”
In the House, the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted that Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroDemocrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? Dangerously fast slaughter speeds are putting animals, people at greater risk during COVID-19 crisis OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats push Biden to pick Haaland as next Interior secretary | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | Wasserman Schultz pitches climate plan in race to chair Appropriations MORE (D-Conn.) should be the next House Appropriations chairwoman. DeLauro, an ally of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal Top GOP senator warns government funding deal unlikely this week Houston will send residents checks of up to ,200 for pandemic relief MORE (D-Calif.), supports bringing back earmarks.
One Senate GOP aide said it makes more sense to give Republican senators power to earmark funds because Democrats are taking over the executive branch, giving the GOP less influence over spending decisions on the state and local levels.
“We’ll have to see what happens,” said Shelby, adding that earmarks should be meritorious and transparent.
He noted that earmarks were banned after they were abused in the early 2000s, when the ever-mounting number of earmarks stuffed into spending bills became a subject of negative media attention and caused a political backlash.
Earmark proponents say that safeguards can be put in place to help prevent abuses. They say giving individual lawmakers more direct stake in spending bills could make it easier to pass legislation.
The New York Times editorial board opined Sunday that earmarks could help Republicans and Democrats work together.
Other Republicans say that while they are personally open to allowing earmarks, they worry about the political reaction.
Sen. Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoMcConnell in tough position as House eyes earmark return Mnuchin to put 5B in COVID-19 relief funds beyond successor’s reach Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed MORE (R-Idaho) said Congress is authorized by the Constitution to direct spending and turning that authority over to the executive branch is “mistaken.” Still, he said “the earmark system, the way it was working in Congress, was generating abuse and excess spending.”
“If it was brought back, it would have to be brought back with some condition and rules,” he said.
Senate Majority Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThunePressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal McConnell offering new coronavirus relief bill after talks with Mnuchin, Meadows Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race MORE (R-S.D.) cautioned that the return to Senate earmarks faces an uphill climb.
“The policy of the conference has been no earmarks,” he noted. “That’s been a pretty hard, fast rule for Republicans going back several Congresses.”
But he predicted if the House brings back earmarks, “there will be an interest among senators in ensuring that they can have their say so in how dollars are spent, too.”