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Tea Party pressure puts Republicans in awkward position on earmark vote

Jim_DeMint.jpg
Jim_DeMint.jpg

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) is pressing his Republican colleagues to put a moratorium on earmarks. (UPPA/ZUMApress.com)

With a fight brewing between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Tea Party ringleader Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) over the practice of requesting earmarks in the Senate, most Republican Senators have been desperately hoping to avoid picking sides. But Tea Party groups, which are eagerly monitoring a closed-door Republican Party vote on the issue next Tuesday, have decided to make sitting on the sidelines that much more difficult.

[GOP1] “It might not ever be known, but if somebody won’t come out and say they’ll vote against earmarks, then we’ll be pretty sure we know they voted for allowing them,” said Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, a national network of Tea Party groups. “And if that’s what they’re going to do, then a lot will see themselves facing primary challenges.”

The added pressure leaves many Republican senators between a rock and a hard place in the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote. On the one hand, they don’t want to undermine McConnell’s leadership or appear hypocritical should they continue the routine practice of requesting earmarks in the next Senate session. But they risk finding themselves on the wrong side of the GOP’s anti-spending campaign and alienating Tea Party groups that have made earmarks an important symbol of all that’s wrong with Washington.

Between now and Tuesday, Republican senators must weigh the dangers of speaking out versus straying mum and then cast a decisive, albeit non-binding vote that activists are looking to as a first sign of the character of next year’s Senate Republican caucus.

Following last week’s elections, DeMint wasted no time in capitalizing on the anti-spending fervor in Washington — and the anti-earmarks platforms on which many Senate Republicans had run — to announce a new push for a vote to place a year-long moratorium on the practice of earmarking at the upcoming Republican Conference meeting among Republicans. The issue quickly drove a wedge between the Tea Party and McConnell, who pushed back against DeMint’s proposal on television and in private. Tea Party leaders like Meckler couldn’t believe it.

“I think McConnell’s a perfect example of what’s wrong with the GOP and has been wrong for a long time,” said Meckler. “Following the election, he has a chance to be a hero and he’s being a zero. It’s very clear that the vast majority of Americans are anti-earmark. He’s a classic example of the arrogance of the ruling class.”

DeMint released a letter indicating that he had gathered the signatures of ten fellow Republican senators, including six fresh faces — Marco Rubio (Fla.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Mike Lee (Utah), Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) — many of whom had run on explicitly anti-earmark platforms.

But many Republican senators hoped to avoid declaring either way, buoyed by the prospect that Tuesday’s vote would remain anonymous. The last time Senate Republicans had voted on a moratorium to end earmarks was in March, when DeMint led an open vote of the full Senate, and while a majority of Republicans had voted for the measure then, they had the benefit of knowing that with most Democrats voting against it, it had little chance of passing.

“It got a majority of the Republican conference last time, but like Bob Dole once said, you never get in trouble for voting for something that fails or against something that passes,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that advocates for reforming the congressional earmark process.

The secret ballot in Tuesday’s vote appeared to make approval of DeMint’s resolution that much less likely. “If you have a closed-door vote, then certainly there are people who can talk one way and vote another or won’t worry about the pressure back home or whatever else,” Ellis said.

The news that Tea Party groups will consider silence on the issue an admission of guilt, however, has thrown GOP senators’ previous calculations into flux and brought increased pressure on them to reveal their intentions. DeMint’s office confirmed on Wednesday that two more senators — Richard Burr (R-N.C) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) — have signed on as cosponsors to his proposal and Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-Tenn.) office responded via email on Wednesday night to say that he, too, had signed the letter. Tea Party groups across the country, meanwhile, have rallied to DeMint’s cause.

“We support it because we would like for our elected officials to vote on the bills at hand and not attach other things to it that might cause them to vote for bad legislation,” said Phillip Dennis, who sits on the steering committee for the Dallas Tea Party. “Let them vote on each bill on its own merits.”

As for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who voted against DeMint’s proposed moratorium in March and has yet to signal a position on the upcoming vote, Dennis added that his group will be “very interested in what she’s doing.”

Indeed, Hutchison is considered among the most vulnerable of GOP incumbents who are being scrutinized and asked to take a stand. She, Richard Lugar (Ind.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Roger Wicker (Miss.) all voted against DeMint’s earmark moratorium in March, and all are facing re-election in 2012. All four offices have refused to reveal their positions this time around, but by doing so they risk incurring renewed calls by the Tea Party to run primary challenges against them in two years’ time.

“We’ll do what we always do,” said Meckler. “Our members will put immense pressure on every senator to vote against earmarks. This is a fundamental issue — it’s both substantive and symbolic. Will they vote against the politics of the past or are they still stuck in it? This is a vote that will never go away, like TARP. Tea Partiers have long memories. Politicians have always taken advantage of the fact that voters have short memories, but we’ll know, we’ll remember, and in 2012 when they have aggressive, well-funded primary challengers, they’ll know why.”

One Republican Senate office, which asked to remain anonymous, urged Tea Party groups not to make assumptions about the senator’s lack of public commitment at this time. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is also up for re-election in 2012, will wait until talking with his colleagues next week before coming to a decision. The office of Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), who has also thus far declined to indicate how he will vote, did not return requests for comment.

Staying silent, however, no longer seems like the safest option.

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