McConnell Praises Tea Party, Opposes Their Goal Of Earmark Elimination

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In a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation this morning, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had kind words for Tea Party activists, who energized the GOP base but whose candidates likely cost Republicans control of the Senate. At the same time, though, he threw cold water on one of the movement’s top goals — an elimination of earmarks — by noting that without Congressional input, President Obama will get to make most decisions on how federal money gets spent.

“Tea Party activists will continue to energize our party and challenge us to follow through on our commitments,” McConnell said.

The Tea Party’s top ally in the Senate is Jim DeMint (R-SC), who’s also McConnell’s main rival within the GOP caucus. DeMint plans to put the Republican conference on the spot about an earmark moratorium as soon as Congress returns. DeMint told the National Journal, “The first test vote will probably be as soon as we get back later in November: Will Republicans vote to ban earmarks … to help a moratorium on earmarks? Because that’s the rule change I’m going to bring forward and I think we’ll see right away in the House and in the Senate whether or not Republicans are serious about what they ran on.”

And yesterday, President Obama said he’d be happy to work with Republicans on such an initiative: “That’s something I think we can — we can work on together.”

But McConnell says no way.“Every President, Republican or Democrat, would love to have a blank check from Congress to do whatever he chose to do on every single issue,” McConnell warned. “And we’ll be discussing the appropriateness of giving the President that kind of blank check in the coming weeks.”

“That’s really what that issues about,” McConnell added.

You can eliminate every congressional earmark and you would save no money. It’s really an argument about discretion. We decide how much we’re going to spend either when we pass a budget or in the case of this past year when we don’t pass a budget, we produce a top-line for the discretionary spending. That top-line determines what gets spent. Beneath the top-line there are arguments going back to Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson between the executive branch and the legislative branch over sayso…. That’s been a much-discussed issue on the campaign trail, and we’ll take a look at it when we get back. But I’m sure the President would love to have a legislative blank check.

McConnell is correct. Republicans who cite earmarks as a source of potential savings are, intentionally or unintentionally, mistaken.

But that doesn’t mean the GOP base or conservative members will go quietly when appropriation season returns. Even before the election, McConnell had an uneasy relationship with the right flank of his base. That relation hasn’t improved just because of the election and could easily intensify when more-conservative members of both the House and Senate come to Washington in January.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Beutler is TPM’s senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he’s led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com

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