Senate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban
Senate Republicans on Wednesday opted to keep a ban on earmarks, a symbolic victory for conservatives that capped a weeks-long fight about spending in the post-Trump era.
They reaffirmed the existing caucus rules that contained the earmark ban and added language supporting the idea of spending cuts for raising the debt ceiling, in a call back to the fiscal-hawk priorities that helped fuel the Tea Party wave and swept Republicans to power in 2010.
But top members of the caucus acknowledge the ban isn’t enforceable and that GOP senators will be able to request earmarks if they want to.
“That doesn’t mean anything. … It’s up to the individual,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee. “If you don’t want to earmark, don’t ask for one.”
The votes put Senate Republicans at odds, at least on messaging, with both House Republicans and congressional Democrats, who have both embraced the return of earmarks that will allow them to direct spending back to their home states.
And it’s, in some ways, a shift from the Trump era, during which the then-president suggested reviving earmarks, floated getting rid of the debt ceiling altogether and frequently urged his party to go big including on the latest round of coronavirus aid.
The debate split the caucus, with GOP Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Rand Paul (Ky.), Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) publicly announcing that they were opposed to bringing back earmarks, while senior members of the caucus and top Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee predicted they would go forward.
Cruz touted the vote as a victory because no GOP senator tried to formally lift the ban.
“I think it was clear by the time we went into the room that the votes weren’t there,” Cruz said, guessing that two-thirds of the Senate conference wanted to keep the ban on earmarks.
But he also acknowledged that a Republican senator could request an earmark despite the ban in the caucus rules.
“Can a member choose to act differently? Sure. Any individual member at the end of the day has to make the choice as to what are the obligations you owe to your constituents,” he said.
Some GOP senators have already said they will request earmarks.
“Yes,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), adding that they would be for “public purposes.”
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who are also on the Appropriations Committee, have also signaled that they are likely to request earmarks, and Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, predicted that enough Senate Republicans will use up their portion of the earmarking funds.
The GOP debate included days of behind-the-scenes squabbling, dominated a separate caucus lunch on Wednesday and featured quips about violence. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) joked to reporters that there might be a “stabbing” — in the end there wasn’t — and other senators referenced the 1856 caning of then-Sen. Charles Sumner.
“I think the Republican conference is pretty much split down the middle,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters shortly before the meeting.
Republicans had also been split about whether the ban, if they kept it, would ultimately be binding.
The GOP conference rules state that “it is the policy of the Republican Conference that no Member shall request a congressionally directed spending item, limited tax benefit, or limited tariff benefit” in legislation.
But top appropriators and members of leadership pointed to a separate section that stated that no “action by the Conference upon any matter pending or to be proposed in the Senate shall be binding in any way on members in casting their votes thereon.”
Cornyn said Republicans were having a “big argument” about that.
But Republicans pretty quickly resolved their debate once they met in a caucus room, wrapping up a meeting that aides had predicted could run for more than an hour in roughly 45 minutes.
The Senate GOP meeting comes after Democrats announced earlier this year that they were going to revive earmarks but with new public disclosure requirements. In a surprise move, the House Republican caucus, considered more conservative and ideological than its Senate counterpart, followed suit.
Part of the problem for Republicans is that Democrats are reviving earmarks with or without them but offering to evenly split the money designed for earmarking. That sparked concerns among GOP senators that if Republicans passed, that money would just go back to Democrats and allow them to direct more funding back to their home states.
“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?” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, asked.
No GOP senator had filed an amendment to the caucus rules to lift the ban, though conservatives had filed potential amendments to the rules to limit what the earmarks could go toward. They had also filed an amendment requiring that any vote on earmarks be a recorded vote, rather than a secret ballot.
In the end, Republicans sidestepped forcing members to take a vote specifically on earmarks, instead affirming to uphold the caucus rules as they already existed.
“We didn’t make any changes,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said Republicans ended up re-approving the caucus rules without making changes to the earmark ban.
“We reaffirmed the caucus rules,” he said.
The Senate GOP banned earmarks in 2010, with Democrats following suit in 2011 amid pressure from then-President Obama and House Republicans who, amid a rise in concern about the deficit, had homed in on the pet projects.
Senate Republicans also voted as a caucus in 2019 to permanently ban earmarks after a previous moratorium expired.
Republicans also adopted a change to the conference rules from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who chairs the Senate GOP campaign arm, who had wanted to make it the conference policy to require spending cuts in exchange for suspending or raising the debt ceiling.
GOP senators say they softened the language on Scott’s amendment before adding it to the rules and that, like the earmark ban, it isn’t binding on how Republicans ultimately vote.
“It’s basically saying any increase in the debt ceiling should be accompanied with a corresponding cut in spending,” said Cornyn. “But it’s aspirational.”