Front-runner’s earmark assault splitting GOP

A bipartisan effort to permanently ban earmarks has split Republicans, putting a large group of them at odds with GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney. 

The Senate legislation, which could be voted on soon, presents an awkward position for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Overnight Finance: Lawmakers see shutdown odds rising | Trump calls for looser rules for bank loans | Consumer bureau moves to revise payday lending rule | Trump warns China on trade deficit MORE (Ky.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee.

McConnell, who has not endorsed in the Republican presidential primary, has not taken a public stance on the bill.

Asked about the leader’s position, an aide to McConnell replied, “He hasn’t said yet but will let you know when he does.”

McConnell has shown a fondness for earmarks during his career, touting the pet projects he secured for his home state.

A spokeswoman for Romney’s campaign said Tuesday that the former Massachusetts governor is in favor of a permanent earmark ban.

The Senate adopted a moratorium on earmarks before the start of the 112th Congress, but a perpetual ban is a considerably more serious prospect because it would permanently limit lawmakers’ power.

Romney has supported an effort by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and other conservatives to eradicate earmarks. The candidate used his leadership PAC in 2010 to circulate an online petition supporting an earmark ban. 

On the campaign trail, Romney has sought to highlight former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) record on earmarks. Along with Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain rips Trump for attacks on press NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Meghan McCain says her father regrets opposition to MLK Day MORE (R-Ariz.), Romney has blasted the White House hopeful as the “granddaddy of earmarks” in an effort to revive his campaign after it floundered in South Carolina. McCain endorsed Romney last month. 

The earmark issue is coming to a head because Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Senate campaign fundraising reports roll in Dems search for winning playbook MORE (D-Mo.) have offered an amendment to the pending Stock Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act that would establish an everlasting earmark prohibition in the upper chamber. They say such a ban is important to consider along with underlying legislation that would prohibit insider trading because both proposals are designed to safeguard against corruptive influence.

Toomey and McCaskill are forcing the debate as earmarks have re-emerged as a hot political topic in this election year. 

Some lawmakers question whether Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDems search for winning playbook Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response The Memo: Immigration battle tests activists’ muscle MORE (D-Nev.) will schedule a vote on the Toomey-McCaskill amendment. They suspect Reid and McConnell would be happy to let the issue die without a vote. 

“I hope we get a vote on this amendment,” McCaskill said Tuesday afternoon. “I am not optimistic about that because typically — I mean, let’s just be honest — the vast majority of the leadership in this body has typically been appropriators. 

“Many of them want to go back to earmarking,” said McCaskill, who is facing a challenging reelection contest in 2012.

A permanent earmark ban is a touchy subject for Reid as well as McConnell. While far fewer Democrats support a continuous ban, President Obama has supported ending the practice. 

In last year’s State of the Union address, Obama vowed to veto any bill that included earmarks. House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism MORE (R-Ohio), meanwhile, has never accepted an earmark. Defying Republican appropriators, BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism MORE has implemented an earmark moratorium in the House.

Reid delivered a staunch defense of earmarks Tuesday. 

“I’ve done earmarks all my career, and I’m happy I’ve done earmarks all my career. They’ve helped my state and they’ve helped different projects around the country,” Reid told reporters. 

“And I repeat I will not stand by and be driven down this path that is one that I think is taking us away from what the Founding Fathers wanted, three separate but equal branches of government,” he said. “I do not believe that the White House has the authority to tell me how I should spend money in Nevada.” 

Reid last year predicted that earmarks will return at some point.

Some Republicans are also looking forward to that day. 

“I’m not a big fan of taking all the power and putting it in the executive branch. I’m looking for reform of the earmark process, not locking the executive branch into spending every dollar forever,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor Overnight Defense: GOP chair blames Dems for defense budget holdup | FDA, Pentagon to speed approval of battlefield drugs | Mattis calls North Korea situation 'sobering' Bipartisan group to introduce DACA bill in House MORE (R-S.C.).

Another Republican senator who requested anonymity acknowledged that an earmark ban polls well, but said he would vote against it because it treads on Congress’s prerogative to make spending decisions. 

“We haven’t talked about in conference. We prefer not to talk about it,” said the lawmaker.

Six sitting Republican senators voted in the 111th Congress against considering a three-year earmark moratorium: Sens. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranTrump's chief agricultural negotiator will fight for American farmers Rep. Cummings hospitalized, wife suspends gubernatorial campaign Medical cannabis community must join together and resist any action taken against us MORE (Miss.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocrats search for 51st net neutrality vote Overnight Tech: States sue FCC over net neutrality repeal | Senate Dems reach 50 votes on measure to override repeal | Dems press Apple on phone slowdowns, kids' health | New Android malware found Overnight Regulation: Dems claim 50 votes in Senate to block net neutrality repeal | Consumer bureau takes first step to revising payday lending rule | Trump wants to loosen rules on bank loans | Pentagon, FDA to speed up military drug approvals MORE (Maine), James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeEPA's Pruitt: Bring back 'true environmentalism' Tax cut complete, hawks push for military increase Trump meets with oil-state GOP senators on ethanol mandate MORE (Okla.), Dick Lugar (Ind.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSessions torched by lawmakers for marijuana move Calif. Republican attacks Sessions over marijuana policy Trump's executive order on minerals will boost national defense MORE (Alaska) and Richard Shelby (Ala.).

Some prominent Republicans think the earmark moratorium should be lifted. They argue that it would help promote bipartisanship in the Senate by giving lawmakers more incentive to support various bills. 

“We had earmarks to help lubricate the process and I hope someday we’ll find a way to come back to that,” said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) during an event sponsored earlier this month by the Bipartisan Policy Center.