Senate Republicans set for earmark showdown as some lawmakers decry 'wasteful spending'

Earmarks could give members more buy-in to legislative process, some Republicans say

Senate Republicans on Wednesday will discuss whether to bring back earmarks -- setting up a battle between fiscal hawks who decry them as "wasteful" spending and others who believe earmarks could help improve dealmaking in Congress.

The discussion will happen at a regularly scheduled conference meeting, with a series of secret-ballot votes likely. None of the decisions made in the meeting will be binding on members, but they will indicate where the Senate GOP stands on the issue as Democrats, with majorities in each chamber, plan to use earmarks and House Republicans have already decided to join them. 

The conference meeting will happen just after 4 p.m.

A Senate Republican's aide told Fox News that a series of votes are expected Wednesday, including a vote on whether to preserve the existing moratorium on earmarks. Votes are also expected on amendments proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, which could ban earmark money from going to the family of members or political organizations.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has been a vocal supporter of lifting the earmark ban. So has former President Trump. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has been a vocal supporter of lifting the earmark ban. So has former President Trump.  (AP)

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The source said they are "pretty sure" the conference will "vote to continue the ban," adding that they "don't see widespread support" for earmarks within the conference. 

"Earmarks, that is a losing issue across the political spectrum," Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a vocal opponent of earmarks, told Fox News. "There really isn't a single segment of the electorate outside of this Washington bubble that supports pork."

Ernst cited polling that said most voters -- including Republicans and independents -- are largely opposed to earmarks. She also noted the "Bridge to Nowhere" project in Alaska that drew widespread attention to earmarks last decade, calling it "infamous." Some members of Congress in the past have even gone to jail over how they handled earmarks. 

"For us to be focusing on really wasteful spending and encouraging more of it, that is a losing issue," she continued. "This is one issue that has always pulled us together, to eliminate wasteful spending... We're sitting at $30 trillion of debt."

But some GOP senators are expected to support allowing earmarks, which are officially called "Community Project Funding" by the House Democrats who moved first to bring them back.

Some argue that by not participating in earmarks Congress is essentially delegating some of its constitutional authority over spending to the president. Others say that earmarks would give members a direct buy-in to the legislative process, making for more engaged representatives and perhaps even more civil dealmaking between the parties.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has been a vocal supporter of lifting the earmark ban. So has former President Trump. 

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"The top Republican in the country, meaning Trump, supports earmarks, and why shouldn't we?" Graham told his GOP colleagues, according to Axios.

"Democrats do it; if we don't do it, we're stupid," he added in an interview with Axios. "We shouldn't just be out of the game."

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, also appears to be open to bringing back earmarks. He said he supports "meritorious and transparent" earmarks, according to Roll Call. 

"It hasn't been talked about much, just in groups," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Tuesday when asked what he thought Senate Republicans might decide on earmarks. "I say we're going to be split."

There's expected to be at least 14 other Republicans besides Ernst that vote against bringing back earmarks. She was one of 15 members who signed a letter Monday pledging to uphold the ban. Also on the letter were Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah., John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Steve Daines, R-Mont., among several others. 

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"Nothing screams DC swamp more than a secret vote to overturn a ban on earmarks that would unleash wasteful spending and make lobbyists rich on the taxpayers’ dime," Daines tweeted. "If we’re voting on this pay-for-play tactic, it should be public."

Indeed, another one of the amendments Cruz proposed would be to make any Senate GOP conference votes on earmarks recorded rather than by secret ballot, according to Politico

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, didn't sign the letter pledging to not vote to repeal the earmark ban. But he also vocally opposed doing so in an interview with FOX Business' Larry Kudlow. 

"The deficit, of course, has been at historic levels the last year and likely to be again this year, just did 1.9 trillion," Portman said. "Second is, where do earmarks go? ... There's some good analysis out there showing that more than half of it goes to those kinds of leadership positions. So for all those members who supported it, they might want to think, gosh, am I really going to get the earmark anyway?"

Fox News' Morgan Phillips, Kelly Phares, Jacqui Heinrich and Chad Pergram contributed to this report.