McConnell fights GOP earmark ban By: Manu Raju and John Bresnahan November 9, 2010 11:34 AM EST Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is maneuvering behind the scenes to defeat a conservative plan aimed at restricting earmarks, setting up a high-stakes showdown that pits the GOP leader and his âOld Bullâ allies against Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and a new breed of conservative senators. In a series of one-on-one conversations with incoming and sitting senators, McConnell is encouraging his colleagues to keep an open mind and not to automatically side with DeMint, whose plan calls on Senate Republicans to unilaterally give up earmarks in the 112th Congress, according to several people familiar with the talks. While McConnell is not demanding that rank-and-file Republican senators vote against the earmark ban, heâs laying out his concerns that eliminating earmarks would effectively cede Congressâ spending authority to the White House while not making a real dent in the $1 trillion-plus budget deficit. And McConnell is signaling his concern about the awkward politics of the situation: even if the DeMint moratorium passes, Republican senators could push for earmarks, given that the plan is nonbinding and non-enforceable. Senate Democrats could still push for their own earmarks as well, potentially putting Republicans in the position of having to vote against popular appropriations bills in order to remain ideologically consistent on the issue. But McConnell has yet to publicly oppose the DeMint earmark ban. That proposal, which has won support from some Republicans, including National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas, will be voted on by the GOP Conference next Tuesday. By keeping a low profile so far, McConnell is seeking to avoid an all-out public battle among his GOP colleagues over earmarks before the new Congress starts. He also wants to avoid alienating the tea party movement and conservative activists who helped win six Senate seats for Republicans on Election Day, victories that dramatically strengthened McConnellâs hand as he plans to battle the White House over repealing health care reform, retaining Bush-era tax cuts and reining in federal spending. McConnell also does not want to find himself on the losing side in the first big policy fight since the GOPâs Election Day triumph. âAnd this debate doesn't save any money, which is why it's kind of exasperating to some of us who really want to cut spending and get the federal government's discretionary accounts under control.â McConnell said on CBSâ âFace the Nationâ on Sunday in discussing the earmark controversy. Yet, it is clear from some Senate GOP insiders that McConnell is facing an uphill fight in blocking the DeMint resolution. âMy guess is that DeMint has the votes to push this through, but McConnell is whipping it hard,â said a Republican leadership aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. DeMint on Tuesday released a list of 10 other Republican senators who back his proposal, including Cornyn, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, John Ensign of Nevada, Mike Enzi of Wyoming â along with Sens.-elect Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Another leadership aide describes McConnellâs conversations with his GOP colleagues this way: âItâs no surprise that members are discussing a proposed rule change. Thatâs the whole point of the advance notice. It gives members an opportunity to discuss the merits of each before the vote.â McConnellâs heightened activity signals what Senate insiders say is real fear among senior members â that the DeMint plan actually stands a serious chance of passing. And that could have uncomfortable implications for a bloc of GOP senators â like McConnell, a member of the Appropriations Committee â who annually send hundreds of millions of dollars for projects in their home states. McConnell isn't the only one who has been trying take the temperature of his colleagues. Other members of the Republican leadership team have been making phone calls to âgauge where everybody is," according to a senior GOP aide. DeMintâs push for a vote next Tuesday has angered top senators who want the party to remain united following their decisive victory at the polls on Election Day, rather than see the spotlight shift to an acrimonious battle over an issue that has long created tensions within their conference. Indeed, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, one of the most conservative senators and an unabashed earmarker, plans a blitz on conservative talk radio to make the case that critics have demagogued the earmark issue in order to make their political points that theyâre out to reform the excesses of Congress. âThey should quit worrying about this phony issue,â Inhofe told POLITICO, singling out DeMint, Coburn and Arizona Sen. John McCain criticism, saying the trio have taken aim at earmarks because itâs a âhuge political plusâ for them. Inhofe added: âThe ban doesnât accomplish anything.â In the wake of the DeMint push, Republicans plan to float other measures next week to show a united front on the spending issue, including one by Cornyn calling on the conference to back a balanced budget amendment. That could give Republicans cover to vote against the DeMint plan. Based on previous votes, DeMintâs plan â cosponsored by Coburn â stands a real chance of winning approval by the Republican Conference. Earlier this year, pushed a moratorium before the full Senate that would apply to both Democrats and Republicans, where 25 of his GOP colleagues voted for it. Following their midterm rout of Democrats, Republicans are welcoming a big crop of freshmen who criticized earmarks on the campaign trail, including potentially eight more votes for a moratorium. That would be more than enough to impose a moratorium in the 47-member Senate Republican Conference. But there are several caveats to that vote tally. For one, a number of senators who voted for the DeMint plan in March are likely ânoâ votes now, including McConnell, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and DeMintâs fellow South Carolina senator, Lindsey Graham, who has been clamoring for $400,000 in federal earmarks to deepen the Port of Charleston. âAt the end of the day, we cannot allow the harbor and the Port of Charleston to fail,â Graham told reporters last week. And when the vote is held next week by Senate Republicans, it will be by secret ballot, meaning that senators can vote their conscience without the public knowing for sure which side they came down on. DeMint believes that there is growing Republican opposition to earmarks, which have become a symbol of wasteful spending in the wake of the infamous Alaskan âBridge to Nowhereâ and the source of influence-peddling scandals that have rocked Capitol Hill in recent years. âSen. DeMint is working with several of his colleagues to unite Senate Republicans with House Republicans by banning earmarks,â said DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton. âAmericans rejected business as usual this election, and the conference vote next week will show them Republicans got the message." Indeed, a number of observers both in and out of the Senate believe the vote will be close. âI donât know whether it will pass,â said one GOP insider. âMcConnell is working against it.â Itâs unclear where the full GOP leadership team will come down on the proposal. With McConnell and Alexander as likely ânoâ votes, three other members â Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, John Barrasso of Wyoming and South Dakota's John Thune â have not declared how they will vote. Thune has been mentioned as a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2012, and voting against DeMintâs earmark ban could alienate conservative activists, though he has earmarked himself over the years. Cornyn supports DeMintâs plan, and Kyl in recent years taken a harder line on earmarks, signaling a potential split within the leadership over the issue. If the leadership further splinters, it could make it harder for senators like Inhofe to gain traction. While he called DeMint, McCain and Coburn his friends, Inhofe said they have unfairly seized on a minuscule fraction of the federal deficit to make political hay out of so-called pork-barrel spending. âAnd I say that knowing that I will be severely criticized only because people have been brainwashed on this issue,â Inhofe said.