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McConnell in tough position as House eyes earmark return

Plans by House Democrats to bring back earmarks at the start of the next Congress have put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGraham calls on Schumer to hold vote to dismiss article of impeachment against Trump Rove: Chances of conviction rise if Giuliani represents Trump in Senate impeachment trial Boebert communications director resigns amid Capitol riot: report MORE (R-Ky.) in a tough spot.

McConnell, a longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, isn’t personally opposed to bringing back earmarks, but he is risk averse and doesn’t want to spark a fight with Tea Party conservatives and Republicans considering White House runs in 2024, say GOP lawmakers.

The GOP Senate leader has been coy when asked about the topic.

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“I haven’t given any real thought to that. I did hear that Hoyer said that,” he said Tuesday, referring to House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerBoebert communications director resigns amid Capitol riot: report GOP divided over Liz Cheney's future Pelosi mum on when House will send impeachment article to Senate MORE (D-Md.), who this month said earmarks would be back in January.

“That’s a decision, obviously, the majority decided to make over there, and it will be interesting how the Republicans in the House respond to it,” McConnell said.

A Republican senator who favors bringing back earmarks noted that McConnell opposed adopting the earmark ban in 2010 but eventually had to back down because of strong momentum for suspending earmarks within the party.

“It’s a good idea but politically folks will make a lot of hay out of it,” the GOP senator said of bringing back earmarks. 

The lawmaker noted that two of the biggest proponents of the ban 10 years ago, former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe best way to handle veterans, active-duty military that participated in Capitol riot Cindy McCain on possible GOP censure: 'I think I'm going to make T-shirts' Arizona state GOP moves to censure Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake MORE (R-Ariz.), are no longer in Congress.

“McConnell is risk averse but McConnell wanted, very much wanted to keep earmarks and we just got run over by people like Jim DeMint and John McCain, but those folks are gone,” the lawmaker said.

“If the Democrats bring back earmarks in the House, how are we going to avoid it? Are we going to put one arm behind our backs?” the source added.

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House Republicans adopted a conferencewide moratorium on earmarks in March 2010 and Senate Republicans voted for a two-year earmark ban within their conference in November of that year. GOP senators later extended the moratorium.

Senate Republicans last year added a permanent ban on earmarks to their conference rules, a move that was championed by Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseSasse, in fiery op-ed, says QAnon is destroying GOP Democratic super PAC targets Hawley, Cruz in new ad blitz Hotel cancels Hawley fundraiser after Capitol riot: 'We are horrified' MORE (Neb.), one of several Senate Republicans seen as having White House aspirations.

But a number of Senate Republicans, such as Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Overnight Defense: Trump impeached for second time | National Guard at Capitol now armed, swelling to 20K troops for inauguration | Alabama chosen for Space Command home Space Command to be located in Alabama MORE (Ala.), Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiDemocratic lawmaker says 'assassination party' hunted for Pelosi during riot Impeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate MORE (Alaska) and Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time GOP senator: Trump rhetoric on election fraud 'certainly not helpful' in Georgia Senate GOP opposition grows to objecting to Electoral College results MORE (W.Va.) either favor bringing back earmarks or are open to the idea.

Murkowski, the chairwoman of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, says she’s talked to colleagues about bringing back earmarks.

“I have been part of smaller group discussions on this,” she said. “I’m one that says that this directed spending is important,” she said, adding “as long as it’s transparent.”

Murkowski said McConnell “is an institutionalist” and “understands earmarks.”

“We’ve had some good conversations about it,” she said. “He certainly knows where I’m coming from. He’s also on the Appropriations Committee.”

McConnell argued 10 years ago against adopting the earmark ban. Speaking to the Heritage Foundation in 2010, he warned it would give “a blank check” to the executive branch.

“Every president, Republican or Democrat, would like to have a blank check from Congress to do whatever he chooses to do,” he said.

But McConnell has to contend with opposition from conservatives in his caucus, including ambitious colleagues looking at running for president in 2024.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Legislatures boost security after insurrection, FBI warnings Former Missouri senator says backing Hawley was 'worst mistake of my life' MORE (R-Ky.), McConnell’s home-state colleague, on Tuesday said it would be a “bad idea” to allow earmarks in Senate spending bills.

“The days when we had 6,000 earmarks on transportation bills was a bad idea,” Paul said.

Other Senate Republicans say they’re open to bringing back earmarks.

“I’m interested in it,” said Capito, a member of the Appropriations Committee.  “We’ve lost touch with the ability to really help our communities and our states in really specific ways. Maybe not large, but meaningful.”

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“Obviously West Virginia has been the beneficiary of some nice earmarks back in the day,” she added. “I would certainly look at it in a favorable light. I would have to see how it’s structured.”

In the House, the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted that Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa DeLauroTim Ryan, Rosa DeLauro giving free coffee and donuts to National Guard stationed at Capitol Trump seeks to freeze .4 billion of programs in final week of presidency House Democrats request cots for National Guard troops stationed in Capitol MORE (D-Conn.) should be the next House Appropriations chairwoman. DeLauro, an ally of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCowboys for Trump founder arrested following Capitol riot Retired Army general: 'We can't have demonstrators showing up at a state Capitol with damn long guns' Graham calls on Schumer to hold vote to dismiss article of impeachment against Trump MORE (D-Calif.), supports bringing back earmarks.

One Senate GOP aide said it makes more sense to give Republican senators power to earmark funds because Democrats are taking over the executive branch, giving the GOP less influence over spending decisions on the state and local levels.

“We’ll have to see what happens,” said Shelby, adding that earmarks should be meritorious and transparent.

He noted that earmarks were banned after they were abused in the early 2000s, when the ever-mounting number of earmarks stuffed into spending bills became a subject of negative media attention and caused a political backlash.

Earmark proponents say that safeguards can be put in place to help prevent abuses. They say giving individual lawmakers more direct stake in spending bills could make it easier to pass legislation.

The New York Times editorial board opined Sunday that earmarks could help Republicans and Democrats work together.

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Other Republicans say that while they are personally open to allowing earmarks, they worry about the political reaction.

Sen. Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoSweeping COVID-19, spending deal hits speed bumps McConnell in tough position as House eyes earmark return Mnuchin to put 5B in COVID-19 relief funds beyond successor's reach MORE (R-Idaho) said Congress is authorized by the Constitution to direct spending and turning that authority over to the executive branch is “mistaken.” Still, he said “the earmark system, the way it was working in Congress, was generating abuse and excess spending.”

“If it was brought back, it would have to be brought back with some condition and rules,” he said.

Senate Majority Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneImpeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP For platform regulation Congress should use a European cheat sheet Streamlining the process of prior authorization for medical and surgical procedures MORE (R-S.D.) cautioned that the return to Senate earmarks faces an uphill climb.

“The policy of the conference has been no earmarks,” he noted. “That’s been a pretty hard, fast rule for Republicans going back several Congresses.”

But he predicted if the House brings back earmarks, “there will be an interest among senators in ensuring that they can have their say so in how dollars are spent, too.”