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 McConnell'Justice for J6' rally puts GOP in awkward spot Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally House to act on debt ceiling next week 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 HoyerOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Hoyer affirms House will vote Sept. 27 on bipartisan infrastructure bill House to act on debt ceiling next week 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 McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements 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 SassePresident of newly recognized union for adult performers boosts membership Romney blasts Biden over those left in Afghanistan: 'Bring them home' Progressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal 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 ShelbyCrypto debate set to return in force Press: Why is Mo Brooks still in the House? Eshoo urges Pelosi to amend infrastructure bill's 'problematic' crypto regulation language MORE (Ala.), Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiEmboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - DC prepares for Saturday of festivals & Jan. 6 demonstration Republican leaders misjudged Jan. 6 committee MORE (Alaska) and Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal Capito grills EPA nominee on '#ResistCapitalism' tweet GOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization 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 PaulSenate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken Rand Paul: 'Hatred for Trump' blocking research into ivermectin as COVID-19 treatment Masks and vaccines: What price freedom? 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 DeLauroAmerican workers need us to get this pandemic under control around the world Democrats press Biden to step up fight against domestic hunger A permanent Child Tax Credit expansion will yield dividends to taxpayers MORE (D-Conn.) should be the next House Appropriations chairwoman. DeLauro, an ally of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiRepublicans caught in California's recall trap Raise the debt limit while starting to fix the budget   'Justice for J6' organizer calls on demonstrators to respect law enforcement 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 CrapoThe Energy Sector Innovation Credit Act is an industry game-changer The 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill Wyden asks White House for details on jet fuel shortage amid wildfire season 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 ThuneManchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Manchin-McConnell meet amid new voting rights push Republican leaders misjudged Jan. 6 committee 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.”