Top Democrat seeks to quell debate over permanent earmark ban

The earmark issue has reemerged in recent days as a hot topic, pressed by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who have offered an amendment to the pending Stock Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act that would establish a permanent ban in the upper chamber. 

The amendment is on a list of expected votes scheduled for Thursday afternoon. It would need 60 votes to pass. 

Toomey called Inouye's decision "a small but important victory for American taxpayers."

"It is unlikely that this decision would have occurred without the heightened attention raised this week by the Toomey-McCaskill Earmark Elimination Act," he said in a statement. 

Despite this small victory, our work is not done. Today, the Senate will have an opportunity to vote on an amendment introduced by Sen. McCaskill and myself that will permanently ban earmarks and eliminate the loopholes in the current moratorium. I hope my colleagues will join us in supporting this important amendment.”

McCaskill called temporary bans "an improvement but we have to keep working toward a permanent ban."

The Toomey-McCaskill provision is unlikely to get the support it needs, especially considering that 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.).

While election politics could seep into the vote count this time around, many lawmakers, specifically appropriators, have said they are loathe to give up their right to choose how federal money is spent in their states. 

Republicans and Democrats have argued that they best understand the needs of their states and should be able to direct funding. 

“Over the past year, many of my colleagues have learned the hard way that being forced to request essential funding for their state puts them at a distinct disadvantage, and in many cases leaves them open to unseemly bargaining with the executive branch," Inouye said. 

"In the end, the Congress will have to choose between an open and transparent method for allocating targeted funding or one that is done with phone calls, conversations, winks, and nods," he said. 

"One method allows for accountability and another leaves us all at the whim of unelected bureaucrats.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who supports the practice, said earlier this week that he wouldn't "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.”

“I do not believe that the White House has the authority to tell me how I should spend money in Nevada.” 

The Senate adopted a moratorium on earmarks before the start of the 112th Congress, but many lawmakers oppose a long-term ban because it would limit Congress's power of the purse. 

Reid has said he expects that earmarking would eventually return. And Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, has not taken a public stance on the bill.

President Obama has expressed support for ending the practice and said in his 2011 State of the Union address that he would veto any bill that included earmarks.

— Alexander Bolton contributed to this story. 

This story was updated at 3:25 p.m.