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Senate GOP leader swears off pork

Sen. Daniel Inouye continues to urge passage of a massive spending bill loaded with thousands of earmarks

By Andrew Taylor / Associated Press

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 01:54 a.m. HST, Nov 16, 2010



WASHINGTON » In a further tea party win over the Senate GOP establishment, the top Republican in the chamber yesterday unexpectedly fell into line behind demands by House leaders for a moratorium on pork-barrel projects known as "earmarks."

The abrupt surrender by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell represented just the latest insurgent victory over GOP regulars like the Kentucky Republican, who had backed several establishment candidates who lost nominations to tea party-backed candidates earlier this year.

Earmarking is the longtime Washington practice in which lawmakers insert money for home-state projects into spending bills. Critics say the practice creates a go-along-get-along mindset that ensures that Washington spending goes unchecked.

McConnell has long defended earmarking, but now said he's heeding the message that voters sent in midterm elections that swept Democrats from power in the House. He said he can't accuse Democrats of ignoring the wishes of the American people and then do the same thing.

McConnell's move heads off a battle with conservative Republican senators who had signaled that they would force a vote today on banning the practice. That vote is now a formality.

"Nearly every day that the Senate's been in session for the past two years, I have come down to this spot and said that Democrats are ignoring the wishes of the American people," McConnell said from the Senate floor. "When it comes to earmarks, I won't be guilty of the same thing."

House GOP leaders had already endorsed a ban on earmarking, and McConnell's move signaled a recognition that earmarks were on their way out.

McConnell, a 26-year veteran of the Senate and longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, had argued in the past that banning earmarks would shift too much power to President Barack Obama and wouldn't save taxpayers any money.

"I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. I don't apologize for them," he said. "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."

Obama, who endorsed a crackdown on earmarks on Saturday, praised McConnell's move.

"We can't stop with earmarks as they represent only part of the problem," Obama said in a statement. "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."

Just hours before McConnell spoke, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., promoted the ban in remarks to tea party activists at a Capitol rally.

"Tomorrow, the Republicans in the Senate are going to start answering that question: Have we learned our lesson? Are we going to go a different way?" DeMint said. "If the Senate Republicans fail to pass a ban on earmarks tomorrow, obviously they have not gotten the message."

The developments took Senate Democrats, who remain the majority party in the chamber, by surprise, and top Democrats said they stand by the practice. A spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, freshly re-elected after a campaign in which he boasted of his ability to bring home the bacon to Nevada, said Reid believes it's up to each senator to decide whether they'll seek earmarks.

"From delivering $100 million in military projects for Nevada to funding education and public transportation projects in the state, Sen. Reid makes no apologies for delivering for the people of Nevada," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. "He will always fight to ensure the state's needs are met."

For his part, Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye said that the lame-duck Congress should try to pass a huge omnibus spending bill, along with its thousands of earmarks.

The Hawaii Democrat delivers hundreds of millions of dollars to his state each year.

"It is vitally important that we complete work on appropriations bills that contain 99 percent of funds that are not earmarked, and only 1 percent that are," said Inouye.

But McConnell's move also forestalls a possible fight with the House, where Speaker-to-be John Boehner, R-Ohio, poised to become the most powerful Republican in Washington, had put people on notice that there won't be any earmarks in spending bills.

"House and Senate Republican leaders are listening to the American people and are united in support of an earmark ban," Boehner said. "This is a strong first step -- though only a first step -- towards making the tough choices required to get our country back on track."






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