WASHINGTON (AP) — Cementing a significant challenge to the ways of Congress, the top Republican in the Senate on Monday fell into line behind demands by House leaders and tea party activists for a moratorium on pork-barrel projects known as "earmarks."
Earmarking is the longtime Washington practice in which lawmakers insert money for home-state projects like road and bridge work into spending bills. Critics say that peppering most spending bills with hundreds or even thousands of such projects creates a go-along-get-along mindset that ensures that Washington spending goes unchecked.
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has long defended the practice, said he's now heeding the message that voters sent in midterm elections that swept Democrats from power in the House. He said he can't accuse Democrats of failing to ignore the wishes of the American people and then be guilty of the same thing.
McConnell's move heads off a battle with conservative Republican senators who had signaled that they would force a vote Tuesday on banning the practice. That vote is now a formality.
"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 in a surprise announcement from the Senate floor. "When it comes to earmarks, I won't be guilty of the same thing."
House GOP leaders had already endorsed a ban on earmarking, and McConnell's move signaled a recognition that earmarks were on their way out.
McConnell, a 26-year veteran of the Senate and longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, had argued in the past that banning earmarks would shift too much power to President Barack Obama and wouldn't save taxpayers any money.
"I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. I don't apologize for them," he 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."
Obama endorsed an earmark ban in his Saturday radio and Internet address, saying that "in these challenging days, we can't afford" them.
Just hours before McConnell spoke, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., promoted the ban in remarks to tea party activists at a Capitol rally.
"Tomorrow, the Republicans in the Senate are going to start answering that question: Have we learned our lesson? Are we going to go a different way?" DeMint said. "If the Senate Republicans fail to pass a ban on earmarks tomorrow, obviously they have not gotten the message."
McConnell's move also forestalls a possible fight with the House, where Speaker-to-be John Boehner, R-Ohio, poised to become the most powerful Republican in Washington, had put people on notice that there won't be any earmarks in spending bills.
"House and Senate Republican leaders are listening to the American people and are united in support of an earmark ban. "This is a strong first step — though only a first step — towards making the tough choices required to get our country back on track."
McConnell's move came as a relief to colleagues caught in the middle of a behind-the-scenes battle between Senate traditionalists and tea party favorites like DeMint and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who have joined with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in a longtime battle — and thus far a losing one — against the bipartisan practice of earmarking.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who voluntarily gave up earmarking last year, praised the move.
"That's great," Corker said. "Sounds like the issue is behind us."
All but a few of the 13-member GOP freshman class made campaign pledges that they wouldn't seek earmarks. But some of them were reluctant to get caught in the middle between DeMint and McConnell on whether they would support DeMint's proposal for a ban on earmarks in the session of Congress that starts in January.
It also was not lost on incumbents that among the new members of the class is Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who defeated Sen. Robert Bennett in state party caucuses earlier this year that were dominated by tea party activists.
Coburn made waves Monday in an interview with the conservative Weekly Standard in which he endorsed future primary challenges of Republicans who partake in earmarking.
McConnell said most earmarks have merit, such as a project he sponsored to clean up the Bluegrass Army Depot, "which houses some of the deadliest materials and chemical weapons on earth." His success in sending money home to Kentucky played a role in his 2008 re-election bid.
But earmarks have become larger-than-life symbols of wasteful Washington spending, such as the $200 million-plus "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska, a project that was later canceled.
Earmarks also are blamed for a "pay to play" culture in which lobbyists and business executives seeking earmarks lubricate the system with campaign contributions.