GOP Senate leader McConnell backs down, agrees to earmark ban

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) announced Monday that he would join a GOP effort to ban congressional earmarks, a stunning turnaround that reflects a huge victory for the Tea Party movement.

A senior member of the Appropriations Committee, McConnell has been one of the Senate’s strongest proponents of local pork, but watched the practice fall into disfavor amid growing public anger over Washington spending that fueled GOP victories in this month’s midterm election.

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“There is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight,” McConnell said Monday in a speech on the Senate floor.

“And unless people like me show the American people that we’re willing to follow through on small or even symbolic things, we risk losing them on our broader efforts to cut spending and rein in government,” he said.

McConnell’s decision puts another nail in the coffin for earmarks, which for years have been tucked into appropriations bills by members of both parties to benefit projects in their states and districts. Earmarks have been a lucrative business on K Street, where lobbyists seek to work with members to insert favored projects in spending vehicles.

Now those halcyon days appear to be a thing of the past.

Even before McConnell’s announcement, there was growing momentum among Senate Republicans to adopt an earmark ban for the conference.

House Republicans already had said they would ban earmarks, and President Obama used his weekend address to call for reforms.

House Democrats agreed in this Congress to ban earmarks for all but not-for-profit entities, and the latest developments add to the pressure on Senate Democrats to agree to reforms.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Monday said it was up to each senator whether to support earmarks. “From delivering $100 million in military projects for Nevada to funding education and public transportation projects in the state, Sen. Reid makes no apologies for delivering for the people of Nevada,” spokesman Jim Manley said in a statement.

McConnell’s decision puts another a feather in the cap of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a favorite of Tea Party activists who has pressed his colleagues to agree to the moratorium.

DeMint issued a statement after McConnell’s speech that saluted him for “bold leadership.”

“His statement today and tomorrow’s vote to enact the moratorium will send a clear signal to voters that Republicans heard the message of the last election,” DeMint said.

“I am proud that House and Senate Republicans have united to end the earmark favor factory.”

McConnell’s statement means DeMint’s proposal is almost certain to pass. After he gave his speech, a number of Republicans said they would support the moratorium, including Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Still, a few opponents to the moratorium remain.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) gave a floor speech Monday that pushed back at proponents of the ban. Inhofe conceded that he was “lonely” in defending the practice, but used McConnell’s old argument that the ban would merely allow Obama and Senate Democrats to increase their control over spending.

He also introduced a bill to limit earmarks that are sent to congressional campaign donors, prohibit legislative staffers from participating in fundraising, create a database of congressional earmarks, require random earmark audits by the Government Accountability Office and require earmark recipients to be certified as qualified for the corresponding project.

“It would be nothing short of criminal to go through the trouble of electing great new anti-establishment conservatives, only to have them cede to President Obama their constitutional power of the purse — which is exactly what would happen with a moratorium on earmarks,” Inhofe said.

McConnell himself alluded to that possibility, admitting in his speech that he was “not wild” about the ban. He also pointedly refused to apologize for his own past earmarks, at one point saying, “Make no mistake, I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state.”

At the White House, Obama praised McConnell’s announcement.

“I welcome Sen. McConnell’s decision to join me and members of both parties who support cracking down on wasteful earmark spending, which we can’t afford during these tough economic times,” Obama said in a statement.

He sought to take the initiative from Senate and House Republicans on the issue, stating: “As a senator, I helped eliminate anonymous earmarks, and as president, I’ve called for new limitations on earmarks and set new, higher standards of transparency and accountability.”

Tom Schatz, president of the anti-earmark group Citizens Against Government Waste, said McConnell’s decision was a major advancement in ending earmarks.

“We’ve been doing earmarks since 1991, longer than anyone else around here, and we’ve seen many changes. In many ways I think he saw the direction the votes were going, and he knows it’s a very important decision,” Schatz said.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, told The Hill that McConnell’s change of mind was “hugely important and a tremendous victory for the Tea Party movement.”

This story was originally published at 2:32 p.m. and updated at 8:41 p.m.