WASHINGTON — Newly invigorated Senate Republicans are expected to take a small but symbolic step Tuesday to show that they're serious about curbing spending, when they formally back a moratorium on "earmarks," the thousands of local projects stuffed into legislation that add up to billions of federal dollars.
With a fresh boost Monday from GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who previously had been skeptical of such a ban, Senate Republicans are expected to endorse barring the practice. Republicans in the House of Representatives also plan to vote on a ban later this week.
Earmarks, usually inserted into legislation by lawmakers for bridges, buildings and other pet projects back home, accounted for $15.9 billion of the federal budget in fiscal 2010, which ended on Sept. 30. That was less than 1 percent of all federal spending and would have put barely a nick in last year's $1.29 trillion deficit.
Still, earmarks have become symbolic to many of Congress's fiscal indiscipline, and the GOP push to ban them holds political significance for that reason, especially now, two weeks after an election when voters resoundingly said they want less, and more responsible, spending.
Even so, Democrats have been reluctant to back a moratorium, despite a call Monday from President Barack Obama to crack down on them.
"I've called for new limitations on earmarks and set new, higher standards of transparency and accountability. But we can't stop with earmarks, as they represent only part of the problem. In the days and weeks to come, I look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans to not only end earmark spending, but to find other ways to bring down our deficits for our children," Obama said.
"It's a good government issue more than a fiscal one," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group.
McConnell seconded that view Monday.
"I don't apologize for them," he said in a Senate floor speech. "But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight.
"Unless people like me show the American people that we're willing to follow through on small or even symbolic things," McConnell said, "we risk losing them on our broader efforts to cut spending and rein in government."
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada disagrees.
"Sen. Reid makes no apologies for delivering for the people of Nevada. He will always fight to ensure the state's needs are met," said his spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle.
The anti-earmark push has been led by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
"I am proud that House and Senate Republicans have united to end the earmark favor factory," DeMint said in a statement Monday. "Earmarks have greased the skids for runaway spending and bad policy for decades. It's time for Congress to stop focusing on parochial pet projects, and instead focus on cutting spending, devolving power and decisions back to states, and working on national priorities like entitlement and tax reform."
The issue isn't lost on potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates, either. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney Monday urged support for the ban, saying it would "send a powerful message that we will no longer tolerate business as usual on Capitol Hill."
Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks earmarks, explained their symbolic power this way:
"To voters, it's special interest spending, and spending where more powerful lawmakers get more," he said, "and they are also a tool to gain votes," since it's common for incumbents to appear in front of a bridge or a building funded by an earmark.
House Democrats are likely to discuss changes in earmark policy later this week, but are unlikely to back a ban.
However, since the GOP will control spending bills in the House next year, they'll probably strike earmarks from legislation there. In the Senate, though, Democrats will retain a majority, setting up a potential showdown on the issue when the two chambers must agree on spending legislation.
Democrats have cut back on earmarks in the past. In 2007, House Democratic leaders cut the number of earmarks in half and required lawmakers to disclose any earmarks they received, as well as the beneficiary. Lawmakers also had to certify that they had no financial interest in them.
Senators agreed to the certification rule, but not the disclosure provisions.
Last year, the House agreed to require lawmakers to disclose all their requests on their websites, while House Republicans banned all earmarks, a practice all GOP members except four followed. Earlier this House Democrats banned awarding earmarks to for-profit firms. Senators, however, adopted none of the changes.
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