Sen. Jim DeMint did not shy away from bucking his Republican leadership during this year's elections, endorsing nonestablishment, conservative outsiders, and he is at it once again, this time hitting them squarely on the politically-volatile issue of an all-out ban on earmarks. And Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, is not looking kindly on the effort by his South Carolina colleague.
DeMint plans to introduce a resolution during a closed-door, GOP-members-only meeting Tuesday, that would not only put Republicans on the record opposing earmarks, but also agreeing not to request them. It is a nonbinding, self-policing measure, identical to one in the House, that critics say would put the minority at a disadvantage, as Democrats would be free to target spending to their states and favored industries. But supporters note the strong backing of the American electorate during the past mid-term election.
While the leader has publicly declined to oppose the ban, McConnell's spokesman acknowledged Tuesday that his boss has contacted many members of his conference to "educate" them on the DeMint measure, though not specifically pressing for party unity in opposition. After all, many newly-elected supporters of the ban, like Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, campaigned on banning pork barrel spending, so it would be a near impossibility to ask them to oppose the practice.
McConnell, according to his aide, is warning that not only is DeMint trying to ban earmarks, but also targeted tariffs and tax measures that could benefit industries in senators' states, like coal and wind energy.
The measure specifically says, "Resolved, that it is the policy of the Republican Conference that no Member shall request a congressionally directed spending item, limited tax benefit, or limited tariff benefit."
Despite this full court press by the leader, DeMint announced Tuesday that 10 of his colleagues have, so far, signed on, six of them new members. Ayotte released a statement saying, "These special pet projects have become a symbol of Washington's 'pay-to-play' culture that must be stopped, and that's why I'm moving quickly on this urgent priority."
Ayotte is joined by freshmen Senators-elect Johnson, Marco Rubio (Fla.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Rand Paul (Ky.), and Mike Lee (Utah), as well as a member of leadership, John Cornyn of Texas who headed the Senate GOP campaign committee and is likely to do so again in 2012. DeMint ally, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, also signed on, as well as GOP Sens Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and John Ensign (Nev.).
"With a $14 trillion national debt and the Federal Reserve pumping out money," DeMint told Fox's Neil Cavuto on Monday, "I don't need to be asking money for local museums and other projects just to make me look good back home."
But McConnell has help from an unsuspecting source in recruiting other members to take a more cautious stand against the ban, help that could provide political cover for some.
Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, often cited as the most conservative member of the Senate, has mounted a quiet campaign in conservative circles, including influential talk show hosts, sending a "Dear Friend" letter saying that a vote for DeMint is a vote for Obama, as any targeted spending on the congressional level could easily be redirected by the White House.
"It would be nothing short of criminal to go to all of the trouble of electing great new anti-establishment Senators only to have them cede to the Executive Branch their Constitutional power and obligation, which is exactly what a moratorium on 'earmarks' would do," Inhofe says in the letter obtained by Fox.
In an interview with Fox, Inhofe said, "If they are successful in stopping spending, then you'll see President Obama jumping in to fill the gap...A vote for this is sending Obama an early Christmas present."
Inhofe, who says he "worked harder for the Tea Party candidates - harder than anyone" this cycle, plans to introduce his own measure in a Senate floor speech Monday that not only "defines earmarks, "but also provides "a solution to the problem" of wasteful spending. The senator would provide no further detail but noted that "authorization is the discipline in appropriations."
Authorizing committees are supposed to provide the roadmap for spending committees, though some no longer do so, and many feel this, alone, if corrected, could cut down on the abuse of pet project spending.
The conservative senator said the DeMint measure "will probably win," but added, "It won't mean anything. What I am going to propose will mean something...I'm coming from the viewpoint of a conservative. I see this in a whole different light."
Inhofe's advice for new members? "Forget about phony demagogued arguments like earmarks and focus on cutting spending."
DeMint has tried to get the support of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle before for an outright ban but failed on three separate occasions. His spokesman, Wesley Denton, says he expects the measure to pass among Republicans this time though, particularly after it took on such a populist tone in this year's elections.
When asked about criticism that this is a one-sided, symbolic political move, not enforceable, Denton said, "The senator feels it's time for Republicans to lead by example."
But McConnell told CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, "This debate doesn't save any money, which is why it's kind of exasperating to some of us who really want to cut spending and get the federal government's discretionary accounts under control."
New members arrive in town Monday and are sworn in at 4p.m. eastern, and within hours, they will have to join their new Republican colleagues and decide whether or not to oppose their leadership in their first, albeit unofficial, vote in the U.S. Senate, or to go back on a campaign pledge.