Earmark Fight Brewing Within GOP

The earmarks issue highlights a larger divide within the Republican party.

Nov. 15, 2010— -- When Congress returns to work Monday, a group of Republican senators is going to immediately embark on a controversial effort to ban earmarks, those pet projects that lawmakers tack on to legislation, in an effort to help their home states.

But turning campaign season momentum against earmarks, into a full-scale ban, is easier said than done.

Leading the anti-pork charge is Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC, who this week called on his GOP colleagues to vote next Tuesday to change party rules and ban earmarks.

"Republicans will never be able to stand up to the big-spending policies being pushed by President Obama and congressional Democrats if we're addicted to pork," DeMint said. "And, we're never going to be able to get the American people to give us a second chance if we don't lead by example and stop business as usual."

DeMint said 13 other GOP senators have pledged to support the earmark moratorium, including a number of newly-elected members. The 13 senators are Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, John Ensign of Nevada, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, John Cornyn of Texas, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

On Tuesday the Senate Republican Conference will vote on whether or not to change internal GOP rules to ban party members from seeking earmarks. But winning the anti-earmark battle will be far from easy.

The earmarks issue highlights a larger divide within the Republican party. While Tea Party-aligned members such as DeMint vigorously support the ban, old guard members like the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell oppose it.

Top Republican Senator Opposed to Earmark Ban

McConnell has already outlined his argument against the ban. Without earmarks, he said, the executive branch would have "a blank check" to decide where federal money gets spent.

"Every president, Republican or Democrat, would like to have a blank check from Congress to do whatever he chooses to do," McConnell told the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington last week.

A senior GOP aide told ABC News that the more the earmarks issue is discussed, the more Republican senators grow concerned with the sweeping impact a ban would have.

"Every Republican agrees we need to get spending under control and banning earmarks sounds like a good first step. But this broad earmark ban would allow us to send money to Israel but not military bases in senators' states," the aide told ABC News. "Even blocking funds from being used for things like the transfer of Gitmo detainees could qualify under a broad ban. Funding to help states after natural disasters like hurricanes and floods would break this broad ban. And it opens the door to the administration holding projects hostage."

In addition, critics such as McConnell have contended that banning earmarks would ultimately "save no money".

"You could eliminate every congressional earmark and you would save no money," McConnell said in his Nov. 4 speech at the Heritage Foundation. "It's really an argument about discretion."

But that's not the case, according to the anti-spending group Citizens Against Government Waste. In the 2010 fiscal year Congress had 9,129 earmarked projects that totaled $16.5 billion, according to the group.

President Obama earlier this month signaled that he would like to work with Republicans on an earmark moratorium, while at the same time he acknowledged the difficulties in changing the way earmarks are used on Capitol Hill, using his own personal experience as evidence.

"I'm a strong believer that the earmarking process in Congress isn't what the American people really want to see when it comes to making tough decisions about how taxpayer dollars are spent," the President said at a Nov. 3 press conference at the White House. "And I, in the rush to get things done, had to sign a bunch of bills that had earmarks in them, which was contrary to what I had talked about."

Even if Senate Republicans on Tuesday decide to adopt a ban, it may not lead to the sweeping changes that lawmakers like DeMint and groups like Citizens Against Government Waste want to see. The vote would be non-binding, so the senators would not have to follow through on it.