Senate GOP opens door to earmarks

Senate Republicans are opening the door to embracing earmarks, as Democrats prepare to plow forward with using the spending to funnel funds back to their home states. 

GOP members of the Senate Appropriations Committee met on Monday evening to discuss what they should do about earmarks with Democrats, led by Appropriations Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who is expected to go resurrect them with or without GOP buy-in. 

Top GOP senators said there wasn’t a formal group decision. But they think Republicans will land on letting each member make a decision about if they want to request the congressionally directed spending, rather than enforcing a unified caucus-wide stance. 

“I think the decision is headed toward letting every member decide if they want to participate in the earmark process,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership and the powerful Senate panel, told The Hill about the closed-door meeting. 

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the top Republican senator on the committee, echoed Blunt, saying it would be up to a senator to make a decision on earmarks. He declined to say if he would request earmarks. 

“I was telling my people that what the Democrats are going to do, regardless of what we do,” he said. “if they gave us four billion in the Senate for the Republicans … and we don’t take it, then they’ll get eight.” 

No GOP senator specifically spoke out in the meeting against requesting earmarks, according to Shelby. Shelby, asked if there was a group decision, predicted that GOP appropriators would make up their own minds but added that “if you don’t want an earmark, I think that’s common sense that don’t ask for one,” Shelby said. 

Asked if a GOP senator could request an earmark if they wanted one, Shelby added: “Oh yeah they could make that request.” 

Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), who attended the meeting, stressed that there was not a final decision and predicted further discussions. 

Whether or not to embrace earmarks has splintered Senate Republicans, who find themselves as the odd man out on Capitol Hill after House Republicans voted to allow for the spending.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said during a Fox News interview earlier this year that earmarks were “very unpopular among Republicans.” 

“I think we’re very unenthusiastic. There may be some Republicans interested in that sort of what’s called congressionally directed spending. It doesn’t enjoy much support among Republicans,” McConnell said. 

McConnell was previously a proponent of earmarks but warned that, speaking for the entire caucus, there was now broad opposition.

An effort by Senate Republicans to request earmarks would likely draw fierce pushback from conservative senators. Dozens of congressional Republicans sent a letter last month to top Democrats on the House and Senate appropriations committees urging them against bringing back earmarks, saying that earmarks had been “rejected as corruptive and wasteful” and that it would be a “grave mistake.” 

A group of GOP senators also introduced legislation to permanently ban earmarks.

Asked on Monday night if the GOP leader had a personal position on earmarks, a spokesman declined to comment beyond his previous remarks.

The Senate GOP banned earmarks in 2010 with Democrats following suit in 2011 amid pressure from then-President Obama and House Republicans who, amid a rise in concern about the deficit, had homed in on the pet projects. 

Senate Republicans also voted as a caucus in 2019 to permanently ban earmarks after a previous moratorium expired.

But Republicans say the caucus rules aren’t binding and that the Senate rules allow for earmarks. 

“It’s not binding,” Blunt said about the 2019 vote. “Senate Rules are binding and rule 44 allows for earmarks. The conference rules are specifically… not binding on any member.” 

Tags John Boozman Mitch McConnell Patrick Leahy Richard Shelby Roy Blunt

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