Even as Senate Republicans approved a “moratorium” on congressional earmarks, a small but significant contingent of the caucus is openly vowing to flout the new rules.
Led by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the contingent is “going rogue” against the party’s leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, who Monday made a high-profile switch to back the earmark ban.
Even with McConnell’s support, proponents of the earmark ban appear to be at a loss as to how it will be enforced against their colleagues who are determined to seek pork-barrel projects.
“I know that it is non-binding and individual senators are going to come to their own conclusions about that,” said Sen. John Thune from South Dakota, a potential presidential candidate in 2012 who promised to abide by the ban himself.
“Ultimately, the ban will be enforced by the voters. If GOP senators want to violate the ban they do so at their own peril,” said John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn from Oklahoma, one of the Senate’s fiercest earmark foes.
The “non-binding” GOP earmark ban passed “overwhelmingly” by voice vote in a meeting by Republicans late Tuesday, said Ron Johnson, the Senator-elect from Wisconsin.
Hart said Coburn will seek a binding ban on earmarks on the Senate floor “at his earliest opportunity.” But Democrats, who will retain a majority in the Senate in the next Congress, appear likely to kill the measure.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri is one of two Democrats who oppose earmarks, she said Tuesday.
“Counting the numbers, I would be surprised right now if we got more than two,” McCaskill said.
Her party’s leader in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, fiercely defended earmarks, calling a ban “a tremendous step backwards” that “just gives more power to the executive.”
Meanwhile, the renegade Republican porkers are vowing to violate the earmark ban approved by the caucus.
Besides Murkowski, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi have both indicated that ban or no ban, they’ll seek earmarks.*
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham also said they might use earmarks in “emergency” situations. Sen. Jim DeMint, also of South Carolina and a fierce advocate for the moratorium, affirmed after the vote that the caucus agreed to tolerate the practice when used sparingly under dire conditions.
“I support the moratorium, but if I find a circumstance back home where our economic interests are not served by the Obama administration, then I reserve the right to take care of South Carolina,” Graham said.
Murkowski, who appears to have warded off a tea party-backed challenger in a run-off campaign, is leading the charge.
Tuesday, she offered a novel defense of seeking earmarks for her state, saying that Alaska, a “young” state admitted into the Union in 1959, hasn’t been able to enjoy earmarks for as long as the other states.
“I hope to be able to figure out a path forward so that a young state like Alaska can maintain its [amount of] federal dollars as other states have had in helping build their infrastructure,” she said.
Sen. Bob Bennett, who unlike Murkowski lost his senate seat to a primary challenger from his right, defended her. “She has every right to do what she wants,” Bennet said.
Inhofe said his Republican colleagues won’t mind if he seeks earmarks, despite that the caucus just voted to ban them.
Asked if there would be repercussions for violating the ban, Inhofe said, “No, I don’t think so, I think they understand, these are all decent people. They may be wrong, but they’re decent.”
Asked how the earmark ban would be enforced via email, a spokesman to McConnell did not reply.
Christopher Harrell contributed to this report.
*UPDATE: Originally the article indicated that Missouri Sen.-elect Roy Blunt would seek earmarks, ban or no ban. But Blunt’s office e-mailed TheDC the following statement:
“Mr. Blunt has said repeatedly that he will abide by the moratorium the Senate Republican Conference adopted today. But he believes that if this debate is about spending, we need to go one further and don’t spend the money. He will introduce a plan to reduce the budget by the total amount of earmarks in the last budget cycle. That’s a real way to reduce spending.”