Republican Senate leader McConnell backs ban on earmarks

A variety of new faces showed up for the first day of the "lame duck" session in Congress.
By Shailagh Murray and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 15, 2010; 10:30 PM

Congress returned Monday to a tumultuous political landscape, with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell conceding to a top demand of the tea party movement by endorsing a ban on earmarks.

McConnell, a master of purveying federal pork for his home state of Kentucky, had stood firm in his defense of the practice. But an insurgent group of conservatives led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) had rallied enough senators to defeat McConnell if the issue came to a vote.

With just two GOP senators on the record in support of McConnell's position, the minority leader announced his reversal on the Senate floor moments after the chamber was gaveled into session after the midterm-election break.

Although the Senate Republicans' earmark ban is not binding, McConnell's commitment to ending the designation of federal funding for pet projects illustrates the tremendous pressure incumbents in both parties are under to surrender some of the privileges of office in the aftermath of a voter uproar on Nov. 2.

"I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. I don't apologize for them," said McConnell, whose earmark tally in recent years approaches $1 billion, according to the government watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "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."

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats made their own concession to the new political reality by elevating the party's most combative spokesman, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), to a new leadership role. He will be in charge of a messaging and rapid-response team that will push back against Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) announced the addition of freshman Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska) to his leadership team, responding to a call by junior lawmakers for a greater voice in decision-making.

Senate Democrats and Republicans are scheduled to meet Tuesday to vote on party leaders for the next Congress, while House Democrats and Republicans will hold their leadership elections Wednesday.

Although Democrats still control the House and Senate for the rest of the year, party leaders have started adjusting to the idea of the coming divided Congress and a more conservative Republican opposition.

Democrats will face pressure to make room for Republican views on issues such as taxes and spending, two matters that will dominate the lame-duck session. President Obama has already signaled that he is open to a compromise that would extend income tax cuts even for high earners to prevent an across-the-board tax increase on Jan. 1.

"The voters didn't elect only Republicans. They didn't elect only Democrats. And they don't want either party to govern stubbornly, demanding their way or the highway," Reid said.

But on the Republican side, McConnell and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), the presumed speaker-to-be, face an emboldened conservative wing that could prove intolerant of any compromise with Democrats - even if it forces lawmakers to meet far into December.

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