Who's Senate GOP leader? On earmarks, it's DeMint

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 15, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim DeMint won one of the biggest legislative victories of his career Monday when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to the South Carolina Republican's demand for a freeze on spending earmarks.

McConnell made his concession a day before DeMint, who won re-election handily and helped elect a group of new conservative senators, had vowed to force incoming Senate Republicans to hold an internal vote on the earmark moratorium.

The two senators have clashed repeatedly over spending bills and other GOP priorities, but DeMint commended the Kentuckian's move Monday. "Senator McConnell's support for the earmark moratorium demonstrates the kind of bold leadership our party needs," DeMint said. "His statement today and tomorrow's vote to enact the moratorium will send a clear signal to voters that Republicans heard the message of the last election."

DeMint's triumph underscored his increased clout after five conservative candidates to whom he'd contributed millions of dollars won election to the Senate on Nov. 2.

DeMint had enlisted at least 13 GOP senators and senators-elect who made public pledges to vote for his earmark ban in a closed-door meeting Tuesday.

"It's symbolic of waste up here, and people are annoyed by that," Sen.-elect Rand Paul, one of the tea party favorites DeMint had funded, said. "People think spending is out of control."

As recently as 10 days ago, McConnell was insisting that lawmakers have a constitutional right to direct federal spending to their states, and resisting DeMint's demands to reject such earmarks.

McConnell's decision puts Senate Republicans in league with their House peers, who are expected Wednesday to extend their current earmark ban to the next session of Congress.

Not since the summer of 2007 has DeMint scored a political victory of such magnitude.

Then only in his third year in the Senate, DeMint branded a major immigration bill "amnesty," galvanizing a national outcry from conservative activists.

DeMint's forces helped defeat the bipartisan legislation pushed by political heavyweights, among them President George W. Bush, Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, and Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.

McConnell's shift on earmarks is a milestone in DeMint's nearly four-year struggle against the appropriations carve-outs for local projects. DeMint helped put the special funding requests on the national political agenda in December 2006 when he blocked a giant spending bill for weeks until congressional leaders removed 10,000 earmarks totaling $17 billion.

(Halimah Abdullah contributed to this article.)

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