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Sen.-elect Mike Lee takes on the GOP earmarkers

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By Marc A. Thiessen
Monday, November 15, 2010

Editor's note: Since this column first appeared, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell went to the Senate floor and reversed his position on the earmark ban, announcing that he would now support the moratorium when the Republican conference votes Tuesday.

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His boxes are not yet unpacked, and he has not even set foot in his new Senate office, but already Republican Sen.-elect Mike Lee of Utah is shaking things up on Capitol Hill. On Friday night, Lee sent an e-mail to Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander formally requesting that when Republican senators vote on a proposal Tuesday to unilaterally give up earmarks in the 112th Congress, they hold a public, recorded vote instead of a secret ballot.

This is a bold move for a soon-to-be freshman senator. How Republican leaders handle Lee's request may mean the difference between success and failure for the earmark ban - and it will tell Americans a great deal about whether the GOP establishment has learned the lessons of the 2010 elections that swept conservative insurgents like Lee into office.

Passing the earmark ban requires a simple majority of Republicans senators - and on paper, at least, the votes should be there. Last year, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina offered an amendment on the Senate floor to ban earmarks by Democrats and Republicans. That amendment was tabled. But it got 25 Republican votes - well over half the Republican conference, and more than enough to enact a ban as a matter of GOP policy. Since then, anti-earmark forces have gained strength. Several Republicans who opposed the earmark ban will not be returning. Meanwhile, a host of new Republican senators were elected on a promise to oppose earmarks. This means that the only way for the earmark ban to fail on Tuesday would be if Republicans who publicly opposed earmarks vote to protect them in the secrecy of the GOP conference.

But that is exactly what some senators want to do. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted for the ban last year, is working to defeat the proposed moratorium. So is Assistant Minority Leader Jon Kyl, who also supported the ban last year but has quietly been making calls to Republican senators urging them to vote no. The conservative blog RedState reported that Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (a potential 2012 candidate for president) has been whipping votes to defeat the proposed moratorium - a charge that Thune denies. Republican leaders are planning to offer a series of anti-spending resolutions designed to provide public cover for senators to reject the earmark ban behind closed doors.

Enter Sen.-elect Lee, with his demand for a public vote. In his e-mail to Alexander, which I obtained from a third party, Lee respectfully tells the third-ranking Senate Republican: "My understanding is that the conference rules require secret-ballot voting only for leadership elections, and provide that policy votes can be recorded, public votes. This is a critical policy question, not a leadership election, and it is important that people know how their senators vote."

Lee is right, there is ample precedent for making the vote public. And his letter puts Republican leaders in an awkward position. There is no reason for them to deny Lee's request for a recorded vote - unless, of course, GOP senators plan to flip-flop on earmarks and hide that fact from their constituents. Lee understands that in a secret ballot the earmark ban will probably fail - but if senators are forced to make their vote known to constituents, it will almost certainly pass.

Who are some of the swing votes? Sen.-elect Jerry Moran of Kansas touted his opposition to earmarks during his Senate campaign but has been quiet as to how he would vote on the ban. Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Jim Risch of Idaho both voted to ban earmarks last year but are reportedly wavering. Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts also voted for the ban last year but has not said how he will vote when the GOP conference meets.

Alexander has been on both sides of the ban. In 2008, when he was up for reelection, he voted on the Senate floor to ban earmarks, but last year he voted against the very same language he had previously supported. To his credit, Alexander did so in full view of the voting public. If other Republicans are going to change their positions on earmarks, they should have to do the same. Voters have a right to know where their elected leaders stand.

It takes courage to directly challenge your leadership before you've even taken your seat, but Mike Lee is not coming to Washington to join the old boys' club. To get to the Senate, he took on a sitting Republican senator - Bob Bennett - and won. And it looks as if he plans to bring that same fighting spirit with him when he arrives on Capitol Hill. As Lee put it in his e-mail to Alexander, "This critical vote presents an opportunity for Republicans to signal to the country that we have heard and understood what the voters want out of their leaders."

Will GOP leaders seize that opportunity? If they insist on voting in secret, and fail to adopt the earmark ban, the signal to the country will be clear: Republicans have not learned the lesson of the 2010 elections - and the Tea Party needs to defeat a few more incumbents before anything changes in Washington.

Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and writes a weekly column for The Post.


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