WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans opened the lame-duck session of Congress on Monday by signaling their commitment to the antispending posture that fueled their big gains Election Day, underscoring the Tea Party movement’s influence on the Republican leadership.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, drove the point home as soon as the Senate convened by announcing that he would support a proposed ban on congressional earmarks, reversing his longtime practice of avidly pursuing money for his state.
“Old habits aren’t easy to break, but sometimes they must be,” said McConnell, who in the past had boasted about the tens of millions of dollars he steered home.
The move by McConnell was a clear sign that Republicans believe they need to be responsive to the Tea Party activists and the conservatives who helped them gain six seats in the Senate and win control of the House come January. It was also a victory for Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., the Tea Party hero who has championed a nonbinding change in party rules that would bar Republicans from seeking what is officially known as congressionally directed spending.
Republicans in the House and Senate are to vote this week on prohibiting earmarks, which have become a symbol of government excess and backroom dealing, although they account for a very small part of the overall budget. McConnell’s endorsement of the ban effectively settled the question in the Senate. Some of his colleagues remain interested in winning earmarks, however, arguing that they should have some say in how federal dollars are spent in their states.
McConnell’s move also put pressure on Democrats to head in the same direction. It also highlighted a potential clash between President Barack Obama, who has criticized earmark spending, and top Senate Democrats, who have shown no willingness to ban the practice.
Obama said he welcomed McConnell’s remarks.
“But,” he said in a statement, “we can’t stop with earmarks, as they represent only part of the problem. In the days and weeks to come, 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.”
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a veteran member of the Appropriations Committee, said “the president is dead wrong on this issue.”
“I think there’s a valid and good reason why senators and congressmen should be able to direct certain monies,” Harkin said.
A spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, said individual senators should decide if they favor earmarks. Because Democrats will retain control of the Senate in the next Congress, a decision by them to continue allowing earmarks could keep the practice alive, at least in spending bills passed by the upper chamber.
The focus on earmarks to some degree obscured bigger questions about spending and the commitment of both parties to rein in budget deficits. It also did nothing to resolve a range of thorny tax and spending issues dividing the two parties in the lame-duck session.