Senate GOP feels the heat on earmarks

Senate GOP feels the heat on earmarks

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellProfessional sports players associations come out against coronavirus liability protections Democratic leaders report 'some progress' in talks with White House Top GOP senator urges agencies to protect renters, banks amid coronavirus aid negotiations MORE and his leadership team are drawing fire from conservatives over earmarks, an unwelcome distraction in the midst of the healthcare debate.

Senate Republicans this week will discuss adopting a one-year moratorium on earmarks, but critics expect the Senate leaders to take a softer stance on the practice of sending federal money to individual districts than did House GOP leaders.

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The main reason is that five members of the Senate leadership, including McConnell (Ky.), sit on the Appropriations Committee and have doled out earmarks to their districts in recent years. Critics say they don’t expect that to change.

McConnell used his seat on the committee to win 38 solo earmarks, worth $60.2 million, for his constituents in fiscal 2010, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that tracks federal spending.

The leader touted his work as an appropriator during his difficult reelection race in 2008, frequently reminding voters of his ability to deliver for Kentucky.

Democrats, who have reeled lately from GOP arguments against healthcare reform, are also hitting McConnell on earmarks.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) pounced on McConnell on Monday after he criticized the administration’s allocation of stimulus funds, citing an earmark he requested a decade ago that sent $1.2 million for a conservation effort on the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.

“It turns out that in 1999 McConnell himself secured an earmark for the ‘Mitch McConnell Conservation Fund,’ which was set up to save the bio-diversity of the Galapagos Islands. You know ... the Ecuadorian islands famous as the home of the Galapagos turtles,” said Hari Sevugan, spokesman for the DNC.

Conservative critics have drawn a contrast between McConnell and House Minority Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBottom line Cheney battle raises questions about House GOP's future Lott says lobbying firm cut ties to prevent him from taking clients MORE (R-Ohio), who has not requested an earmark during the course of his career in Congress. They say BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBottom line Cheney battle raises questions about House GOP's future Lott says lobbying firm cut ties to prevent him from taking clients MORE has shown much stronger leadership in the House GOP conference, which adopted a one-year moratorium on earmark requests for all its members.

“Boehner doesn’t support earmarks, and he’s the leader of the House conference,” said Andrew Roth, director of government affairs at the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group. “McConnell is a big earmarker and leader of the Senate Republicans. It all begins with leadership, and leadership is lacking in the Senate right now.”

McConnell has defended earmarks by asserting that leaving all spending decisions to the White House will not lead to wiser choices.

“One of the things we learned in the stimulus bill, when the administration spent money on things like turtle tunnels in Florida, is just because Congress doesn’t engage in spending in a foolish way doesn’t mean the administration won’t,” McConnell said in a Friday press briefing.

McConnell also noted that the Senate has adopted earmark reforms to make the process more transparent to the public.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderChamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection Pelosi huddles with chairmen on surprise billing but deal elusive Senate GOP opens door to smaller coronavirus deal as talks lag MORE (Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and an appropriator, won $13.7 million in solo earmarks for his state in fiscal 2010; Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann Murkowski300 green groups say Senate has 'moral duty' to reject Trump's public lands nominee Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  On The Money: Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock | Meadows, Pelosi trade criticism on stalled stimulus talks | Coronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding MORE (Alaska), vice chairwoman of the GOP conference, collected $33.2 million worth of solo earmarks for that year.

Sens. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who attend GOP leadership meetings and are considered de facto members, also sit on the Appropriations panel.

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“The leadership in particular likes to earmark,” said Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeTea Party rises up against McConnell's trillion relief plan Hillicon Valley: Twitter bans thousands of QAnon accounts | Bipartisan support grows for election funds in Senate stimulus bill | Senate committee advances bill to ban TikTok from federal devices Senators demand answers on expired surveillance programs MORE, a conservative challenging Bennett in the Utah Republican primary. “Sen. McConnell and Sen. Bennett have a completely different philosophy on earmarks than I do. They would say they’re showing leadership, but it’s in a different direction than I would support.”

Critics say that Senate Republican leaders have repeatedly shown reluctance to take a strong stand against earmarks.

On March 12, an aide to Alexander, sent a message via Twitter to bloggers and podcasters to drum up publicity for Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeSenate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection MORE (R-Okla.), who that day penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed against freezing earmarks.

Inhofe, who has considerable spending authority as the senior Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, wrote: “An earmark moratorium won’t save any money.

“Howling about earmarks provides convenient political cover for big spenders who vote for budget-busting bills,” he wrote.

The leadership support for Inhofe’s op-ed rankled some Senate Republicans.

“Either this staffer doesn’t know his boss voted for an earmark moratorium during his reelection, or Senate Republican leadership now think they know better than voters on pork-barrel spending. How do they think this helps in November?” said a Senate GOP aide.

Nick Simpson, a spokesman for the conference, said it would provide media support for any Republican senator.

Senate conservatives also grumble that McConnell did nothing to push the GOP conference to adopt earmark reforms suggested in 2008 by a special task force headed by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).

The task force of five GOP senators, which McConnell assembled, recommended new disclosure rules and putting earmarks in bill text to close loopholes that appropriators used to circumvent restrictions.

“Sen. Lugar handed the report to McConnell and he put it in a drawer and locked it,” said another Senate aide.

McConnell negotiated with Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidKamala Harris to young Black women at conference: 'I want you to be ambitious' Obama calls filibuster 'Jim Crow relic,' backs new Voting Rights Act bill McConnell warns Democrats not to change filibuster rule MORE (D-Nev.) to have the entire Senate adopt the suggested reforms. Reid refused, but critics fault McConnell for not asking the GOP conference to abide by them.

Proponents of an earmark moratorium predicted little progress would be made at Tuesday’s meeting.

“We’re not optimistic that anything is going to happen,” said the aide. “We’d be shocked if they accepted the ban on earmarks to for-profit companies,” which House Democrats have adopted.