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 McConnell (Ky.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee.

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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 McCain (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 McCaskill (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 Reid (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 Boehner (R-Ohio), meanwhile, has never accepted an earmark. Defying Republican appropriators, Boehner 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 Graham (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 Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), James Inhofe (Okla.), Dick Lugar (Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (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.