WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Jim DeMint are headed for a showdown vote next week on earmarks. The vote will be the first post-election test of Tea Party lawmakers' ability to deliver on their hard-line campaign pledges.
The issue is already splitting Republicans.
DeMint, a South Carolina Republican elected to his second term last week, said he will force an internal vote among incoming GOP senators Tuesday on freezing all requests for spending earmarks, which legislators seek to pay for pet projects in their home states.
DeMint sent a letter to Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, saying he will propose an internal policy change banning earmarked spending requests when incoming GOP senators meet Tuesday to elect their leaders and craft party rules.
The letter was signed by eight incumbent senators and by the five incoming senators, including Sen.-elect Rand Paul of Bowling Green, who won election last week with backing from DeMint and strong support from Tea Party activists. The language in the proposed resolution is identical to an earmark moratorium adopted last year by House Republicans.
Paul has said he will not submit earmark requests and will make working to end all earmarks a priority.
Paul's position puts him at odds with McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator.
As McConnell outlined a nuanced position on earmarks on the Sunday talk shows, Paul doubled down on his support for an earmark moratorium and renewed his pledge not to use them to funnel money to Kentucky projects.
"I do tell people within Kentucky I say, 'Look, I will argue within the committee process for things that are good for Kentucky that they want, and also within the context of a balanced budget,'" Paul said.
DeMint's rock-ribbed opposition to government spending has earned him a national following among conservative activists, who helped him raise more than $5 million to contribute to like-minded Senate candidates.
It has not made him many friends in his own caucus.
McConnell and DeMint have repeatedly butted heads as DeMint has forced senators to take difficult votes on spending measures and controversial policy matters. DeMint helped turn earmarks into a national political issue in December 2006 when he blocked an appropriations bill for weeks until Senate leaders removed 10,000 earmarks for local projects totaling $17 billion.
"Republicans in the House and Senate have an opportunity to stand against the earmark favor factory next week and unite to fight for an end to pork barrel spending for the entire Congress," Wesley Denton, DeMint's spokesman, said Wednesday. "This is an important issue for voters in the last election, and we're hopeful it will pass."
McConnell responded coolly to DeMint's proposal.
"The problem is, it doesn't save any money," McConnell told CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday. "What we really need to do is to concentrate on reducing spending and reducing debt. And this (earmark) debate doesn't save any money, which is why it is kind of exasperating to some of us who really want to cut spending."
McConnell said a Republican-only earmark ban would give Democratic senators broader latitude to channel money to pet projects.
McConnell said he is willing to consider a ban on earmarking as long as it applies to both parties.
McConnell also noted the Obama administration's support of DeMint's call for an earmark moratorium, a move the Kentucky lawmaker said was "not surprising because every president would like for us to appropriate all the money and send it to them and let them spend it any way they want to."
"We ought to also deal with executive branch earmarks. The stimulus bill that passed last year, the almost a trillion-dollar stimulus bill, was riddled with executive branch earmarks," McConnell said.
McConnell voted for a failed DeMint amendment in March that would have imposed a one-year moratorium on earmarks. That measure, however, would have prohibited the local spending requests from all senators, while the DeMint rule to be voted on Tuesday would freeze earmarks from Republican senators only.
Among the eight incumbent senators who had signed onto the Senate Republican earmark freeze by Wednesday evening, only two have requested no such targeted funds since 2008 — DeMint and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
The other ban backers have sought varying amounts of earmarks: Richard Burr of North Carolina, $32.3 million; Jeff Sessions of Alabama, $24.2 million; John Cornyn of Texas, $21.9 million; Mike Enzi of Wyoming, $21.8 million; John Ensign of Nevada, $12.4 million; and Bob Corker of Tennessee, $10.3 million, according to the Web site LegiStorm.
Kentucky has benefited heavily from earmarking by well-placed lawmakers.
From 2008 to 2010, McConnell made $927 million in solo earmark requests, including thousands to help address issues related to the destruction of the chemical weapons stockpile at the Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond.
This fiscal year alone, Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, one of the Republicans in line to lead the powerful House Appropriations committee, sponsored or co-sponsored 50 earmarks totaling $93.4 million, ranking 10th out of the 435 representatives, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group that tracks money in politics.
Tuesday's GOP Senate caucus vote will immediately thrust newly minted and Tea Party-backed senators into the middle of a caucus debate. Paul, fresh from his win in the tough Kentucky contest, will go from freshman orientation into the closed door vote with veteran GOP lawmakers.
"I will not earmark anything, and I will not support earmarks," Paul told CNN on Wednesday. "I have signed a pledge, I have signed (a) word of honor that I will not do that. ... I am not in favor of earmarks and will not earmark any legislation."