Senate GOP Nearing Decision on Whether to Embrace Earmarks

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Senate Republicans are nearing a decision on whether to embrace the return of earmarked spending that could smooth the passage of annual appropriations bills and the transportation portion of President Joe Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure proposal.

Momentum is building among Republicans for allowing each senator to choose whether to direct spending to projects in their home states. The top Republican on the Appropriations Committee said Tuesday that because Democrats are already going to go forward with earmarks, it’s up to individual Republicans whether to benefit.

“It’s a done deal. They are going to have them,” Alabama Republican Senator Richard Shelby told reporters.

Republicans in the House have already voted to go along with Democrats in reviving the practice of letting lawmakers designate special spending projects. The Senate GOP conference is set to meet next Wednesday to ratify its rules and discuss the earmarks issue. According to Republican aides, current Republican conference rules are not binding on GOP senators when they vote so they would not need to be changed to let members request earmarks.

Earmarks -- where spending for a member’s district is included in a larger bill as an incentive for that member’s vote -- were discontinued a decade ago in Congress after a series of corruption and waste scandals. Proponents of the practice say rules on disclosing requests for earmarks will prevent the kinds of abuses in the past, and allowing lawmakers to direct spending to their states and districts will encourage the kind of deal-making essential to bipartisan agreements.

That could be key as Biden’s infrastructure and spending plan works its way through the Senate. Republicans so far are holding firm in opposing Biden’s expansive proposal.

GOP opponents of earmarks will still have an opportunity to block their return for Republican senators, however, by trying to make the anti-earmark rules binding.

“One of the few positive actions Congress has taken to combat wasteful spending in the past decade is to swear off earmarks. I have no intention of participating in any earmark process and will continue to urge my Senate Republican colleagues to do the same,” GOP Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said in an emailed statement.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, has been leading discussions to return earmarks in the fiscal 2022 appropriations bills. They are expected to total around $15 billion, about 1% of the $1.5 trillion in spending for the year for both the House and Senate. Leahy has said he is willing to share half of the Senate earmarking funds with Republicans, creating an incentive for members of the party to go along to get nearly $4 billion in local projects.

Separately, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Tom Carper is talking with Republicans on his committee about allowing the return of earmarks in the surface transportation bill he plans to produce in his committee by the end of May. Carper said Monday those discussions are still ongoing.

The House is moving full speed ahead with earmarking following the March 17 House GOP conference vote to permit the practice. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is accepting requests for projects from lawmakers through April 23 for the bill it plans to write next month. The committee is expected to post the requests on its website with certifications that lawmakers do not personally benefit from the funding.

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