Sen. Inhofe on warpath against earmark ban

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is vowing an all-out war within the Senate GOP conference next week to defeat an earmark moratorium that he says unconstitutionally cedes congressional spending power to President Obama.

Inhofe, one of the most conservative members of the Senate, wants to block a proposal by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) that would ban earmarks for the incoming 112th Congress. The vote would be by secret ballot, apply only to Senate Republicans and would not have the force of law.

Inhofe concedes that DeMint is likely to get the moratorium passed by the GOP conference, but says he is prepared to give floor speeches that single out DeMint and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another longtime earmark opponent, for hypocrisy.

In a phone interview with The Hill, Inhofe said that the Constitution specifically grants spending power to Congress, and that ceding earmark authority to the executive branch would effectively strip the Senate of its spending power.

“I know politically it’s the dumbest thing for me to say I’m for earmarks, but it would cede authority to President Obama,” Inhofe said. “But McCain and DeMint are not being honest about how they define them. I’ve been ranked as the most conservative member of the Senate, so this is coming from a conservative.

“I have quotes, and I’ll use them on the floor to make sure McCain and DeMint can’t wiggle out of how they define earmarks. This is an Obama-DeMint-McCain effort. … I’ll lose on this, but I want to be on the record.”

Inhofe said it’s not surprising that many of the Tea Party-backed candidates who won election this month are opposed to earmarks, because of how the issue has been portrayed.

“These [earmarks] have been demagogued for two years now,” he said. “It’s been presented in such a way that this is somehow conservative.”

DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton said the senator expects the earmark moratorium to pass the conference, and said newly elected members of the 112th Congress would be able to vote on the proposal.

DeMint issued a statement Tuesday that named 10 Republican senators who are publicly backing the earmark suspension. The list included Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Ensign (Nev.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and John Cornyn (Texas), and Sens.-elect Pat Toomey (Pa.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Mike Lee (Utah), Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), many of whom were elected on anti-spending platforms.

The vote pits DeMint, a favorite of the Tea Party, against GOP leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who — like Inhofe — has argued that an earmark ban would do little to control spending while weakening congressional authority.

Inhofe said he has no opposition to other types of congressional spending, such as allocations from the federal Highway Trust Fund, but that DeMint is being hypocritical for trying to secure $400,000 for a port project in Charleston, S.C. 

Denton denied that charge, saying DeMint has not requested any earmark since 2006.

Inhofe said he hasn’t yet reached out to McConnell, who lays out much the same argument in defending earmarks.

“The earmark debate is really about executive-branch versus legislative-branch discretion,” he said in an interview with The Hill this summer. “Are you going to give 100 percent discretion to the president? Are you going to retain some for yourself?

“[An earmark ban] saves no money. The money is saved in the overall aggregate. … I’m in favor of spending less. I’m not in favor of giving any president 100 percent discretion over what we do spend — this one or any other,” McConnell said.

In an interview Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” McConnell acknowledged the issue “has generated some level of controversy within our conference” and suggested that if congressional earmarks were banned, then executive-branch earmarks should be banned as well.

“The stimulus bill that passed last year, the almost a trillion-dollar stimulus bill, was riddled with executive-branch earmarks,” he said. “As you can see, it's a lot more complicated than it appears.”

DeMint has tried and failed several times to pass an earmark moratorium through the full Senate, most notably this past March, when the Senate voted 68-29 against a two-year ban.

Twenty-four Republicans — a majority of the GOP conference — supported DeMint’s move at the time, along with Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Russ Feingold (Wis.) and Ted Kaufman (Del.). Kaufman and Feingold will not be serving in the 112th Congress.

House Republicans passed an earmark ban this year in their caucus, and GOP Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) is considering an extension when the party assumes power in the chamber next year.