Senate GOP faces post-Trump spending brawl
Republicans are bracing for a fierce fight over spending as the party tries to figure out its post-Trump identity.
GOP senators this week will wade into two major sources of division in the conference: whether to nix an earmark ban, one of the few remaining vestiges of the Tea Party years, and whether to adopt a caucus rule that endorses offsetting any increase in the debt ceiling with spending cuts.
The looming standoff comes after Republicans embraced big budgets under former President Trump, who signaled support for getting rid of the debt ceiling and urged GOP lawmakers to go bigger in the final round of coronavirus relief passed while he was in office.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said he had “no clue” how this week’s debate will play out given the divided caucus.
“I think everybody is interested in hearing the discussion and the arguments on both sides, but it’s an issue that a lot of people have pretty strong views going in,” Thune said.
Senate Republicans are increasingly marginalized on Capitol Hill when it comes to spending. Democrats are poised to revive earmarks and House Republicans, in a surprise move, lifted their own ban this year, leaving just GOP senators formally holding on to the Obama-era red line.
But the Senate GOP fight is politically complicated, and the result could signal where the party and the caucus are going, particularly if they win back one or both chambers next year.
On one side is a cadre of the party’s 2024 White House contenders.
Republicans including Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Josh Hawley (Mo.), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) are all opposed to lifting the earmark ban. Another potential White House contender, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), led the charge in 2019 to get the permanent ban included in the caucus rules.
They were part of a group of 15 senators who circulated a letter on Monday vowing that they will not support lifting the earmark ban.
“We … stand committed to the ban on earmarks. We will not vote to repeal it. We will not participate in an inherently wasteful spending practice that is prone to serious abuse,” they wrote in the letter.
Among other notable signatories was Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a potential successor to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) when he steps down or retires. McConnell hasn’t yet taken a public position on reviving earmarks except to say earlier this year that much of his caucus would oppose such a move.
“Unfortunately, it seems like we’re reverting back to the previous status quo,” Cornyn said.
In a potential muscle flex, conservatives are pushing for any vote on the earmark ban to be a roll call vote. It’s a shift from how Republicans currently handle changes to the rules — secret ballot — and could force those who vote to lift the ban to publicly defend their decision.
“If we’re voting on this pay-for-play tactic, it should be public,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) tweeted.
A spokesperson confirmed that Daines believes there should be a public record of the vote, not that the vote itself should take place in public.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Senate GOP campaign arm and a potential 2024 contender, will offer an amendment to the rules to make it caucus policy that the debt ceiling “is not suspended and may not be increased unless it is accompanied by equal or greater cuts in federal spending.”
Scott said he expects his amendment to be adopted.
“I don’t think we ought to raise the debt ceiling. I think we should live within our means,” Scott said, adding that he thought voters wanted Republicans to reembrace fiscal conservatism because they are “worried” about the country’s debt.
Scott’s proposal, if Republicans stick with it, could have immediate ramifications. Congress will need to decide on raising the debt ceiling this year.
Though conservatives have long clamored for tying spending cuts to the debt ceiling, a bipartisan group of senators typically provide the 60 votes needed for a “clean” suspension or increase of the debt ceiling.
Wednesday’s votes will pit Senate conservatives against some of the most senior members of the caucus: Republicans on the powerful Appropriations Committee and perhaps Trump himself.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of the former president, has been telling GOP colleagues that Trump supports earmarks and is pushing them to follow suit.
Part of the complication for Republicans is that Democrats are planning to move forward with earmarks regardless. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has said he will split the money available for earmarks with Republicans, if they take part.
If they don’t, GOP senators are unclear as to whether they’re just giving more money to Democrats to direct back to their home states.
Thune said that in a “perfect world” Republicans would prefer not to have earmarks but acknowledged that the debate is influenced by others in Congress.
“Now you have House Republicans and Democrats, and the question is if the allocation that we have isn’t used, does it go back to the pool of Democrats?” Thune asked.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) warned GOP appropriators that if Republicans don’t use up their portion of the earmark money it would go back to Democrats. Shelby said Republicans would get roughly $4 billion to direct through earmarks.
“If we didn’t use it, they would get $8 billion,” he said, referring to Democrats.
Though Wednesday’s vote will give a sense of where Senate Republicans are headed, and is stirring up a lot of tension within the caucus, the results could largely be a symbolic victory, for now, for conservatives.
Cornyn, who opposes lifting the earmarks ban, acknowledged that, saying that there wasn’t an “enforcement mechanism.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership and a member of the Appropriations Committee, predicted in the end Senate Republicans will earmark regardless of Wednesday’s vote.
“My guess is at the end of the day enough Senate Republicans earmark to use up our half … of the money,” Blunt said.
Blunt added that he similarly didn’t think Scott’s change on the debt ceiling would prevent GOP senators from supporting a clean debt ceiling, adding that it would “just express the philosophy of whoever voted for it.”
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