Earmark Fight In Senate Pits Tea Partiers Against Establishment GOP

Total opposition to earmarking is a key tea party tenet, and the battle to get Republicans to voluntarily ban it in their ranks is already raging. Establishment leaders like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — who favor earmarking for its time-honored electoral implications — are clashing with pro-ban Senators led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), the body’s tea party hero.

Lining up behind DeMint in the push to end earmarks are Sens. Jim Coburn (R-OK), John Cornyn (R-TX), John Ensign (R-NV) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) — along with Senators-elect Pat Toomey (R-PA), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Ron Johnson (R-WI).

McConnell has reportedly been fighting behind the scenes to squash the proposed ban, and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) — one of the Senate’s most conservative members — is publicly blasting his anti-earmark colleagues for hypocrisy.

Who wins the scrum could have broad implications in 2012.On the sidelines are the budget watchdog groups that have been calling for an end to banning earmarks for years. They say that even with the arrival of anti-earmarking types like Paul and Toomey, they’re not holding their breath that a tea party-infused Senate GOP will deliver the ban they’ve been waiting for.

Mike Connolly of the conservative Club For Growth told me this week that he hopes “things will move in a DeMinterly direction” when the next Congress convenes, but he said “it was always going to be a tougher slog” in the Senate. The Club has been anti-earmark forever, and Toomey is a former chair. Still, Connolly sounded like he’d be surprised if Toomey and his new colleagues could get earmarking scrapped.

Connolly said that the same anti-incumbent anger that fueled the tea party’s influence over the last election cycle could spill over into 2012 if anti-earmark groups like the tea party aren’t satisfied.

“When people talk about being against the establishment, this is what it means,” he said. “The American people have kind of really made up their minds on this issue.”

Stephen Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said something similar, but he pointed to President Obama’s public opposition to earmarks and suggested tea partiers may not be the only problem establishment Republicans have if they reject an earmark ban. Obama has backed DeMint’s plan to ban earmarks in the Senate, even though many of his fellow Democrats in the Senate caucus continue to earmark away (though the majority has passed disclosure rules that change the way earmarks work.)

“The president seems like he’s going to ramp up on earmarks,” Ellis said this week. “You can see a case where the president can triangulate on Senate Republicans.”

Ellis said he didn’t expect the Senate GOP to ban earmarking either — at least as long as McConnell is in charge.

“McConnell is an unabashed supporter of earmarks,” he said. “Earmarks are in his DNA.”

Indeed, McConnell has already begun to shut down DeMint’s efforts to push an earmark ban through, according to Politico. In advance of next Tuesday’s GOP caucus vote on DeMint’s proposed moratorium on earmarks — similar to the one already in place among House Republicans — McConnell has been pushing Senators to reject the ban, though he has yet to come out against it publicly.

Connolly said McConnell and other Republicans should be wary of rejecting the tea party next week.

“We’re watching very closely,” he told me. “And we want to make sure people know we’re watching closely.”

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