WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, facing increasing pressure from his Republican caucus and the Tea Party movement, acquiesced on Monday and endorsed a GOP-led moratorium on "earmarks," the thousands of local projects stuffed into legislation that add up to billions of federal dollars.
"Nearly every day that the Senate's been in session for the past two years, I have come down to this spot and said that Democrats are ignoring the wishes of the American people," McConnell said Monday in a surprise announcement from the Senate floor. "When it comes to earmarks, I won't be guilty of the same thing."
The reversal by McConnell, who based his 2008 re-election campaign on his ability to deliver projects to Kentucky, suggests a political win for Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. DeMint was poised to force an internal vote among incoming GOP senators Tuesday on freezing all requests for earmarks, which legislators seek to pay for pet projects in their home states.
DeMint was backed by at least eight incumbent senators and by the five incoming senators, including Sen.-elect Rand Paul of Bowling Green, who won election with backing from Tea Party activists.
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McConnell had previously worried that a Republican-only earmark ban would give Democratic senators broader latitude to channel money to their pet projects and hand President Barack Obama too much power.
"I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. I don't apologize for them," McConnell said. "But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight."
With a fresh boost Monday from McConnell, the senior Kentucky senator, Senate Republicans are now expected to endorse banning earmarks on Tuesday. Republicans in the House of Representatives also plan a vote this week.
Democrats have been reluctant to back a moratorium, despite a call Monday from President Barack Obama to crack down on them.
"I've called for new limitations on earmarks and set new, higher standards of transparency and accountability," Obama said. "But we can't stop with earmarks as they represent only part of the problem."
House Democrats are likely to discuss changes in earmark policy later this week but are unlikely to back a ban. But since the GOP will control spending legislation in Congress next year, earmarks will probably be gone.
In the Senate, though, Democrats retain a majority and will control the process, setting up a potential showdown over the issue when the two chambers have to agree on spending legislation sometime next year.
Earmarks, usually inserted into legislation by lawmakers for bridges, buildings and other pet projects back home, accounted for $15.9 billion of the federal budget in fiscal 2010, which ended Sept. 30. That was less than 1 percent of all spending, and banning the practice would have barely nicked last year's $1.29 trillion deficit.
However, they've become symbolic of Congress' lack of spending discipline.
"It's symbolic of waste up here, and people are annoyed by that," said Paul, who traveled to Washington this week for freshman orientation. "People think spending is out of control."
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, according to the Web site LegiStorm.
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.
McConnell's move was applauded by fiscal conservatives Monday. The lawmaker, hailed on both sides of the aisle as a shrewd tactician, also headed off a showdown with DeMint over a topic that is unpopular with voters.
"Senator McConnell's support for the earmark moratorium demonstrates the kind of bold leadership our party needs," DeMint said.