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The next Republican civil war: a fight over earmarks

As Democrats begin their march toward reinstating earmarks, Republicans are grappling with how their party will handle bringing back directed congressional spending.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested in a Fox News interview Thursday evening that Republicans won’t be asking for earmarks, which would have huge implications for spending legislation going forward and give Democrats even greater say in how to direct funding.

But Republicans are divided along ideological and even generational lines with fiscal conservatives arguing the practice of sending money directly to certain districts and projects has been grossly abused and represents the worst of Washington. Meanwhile, some longer-serving members and appropriators support the practice and recall the benefits of driving pork back home.

“The key with congressional directed spending is it should be posted, the sponsor’s name should be attached, it should not be air-dropped in conference, it should have had to pass one house or the other. There are a lot of transparency reforms that you could put in,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine and an appropriator. “Why Congress ever wanted to give away its spending authority to people who were not elected or responsible is beyond me.”

McConnell was a big earmarker before he agreed to ban them following the rise of the Tea Party.

When asked about switching his thinking on earmarks, McConnell said, “Well I represent the entire conference, and I can tell you, the overwhelming majority of the Republican conference in the Senate is not in favor of going back to earmarks. I’m assuming those people, even if the Democrats craft the bill so that those are permitted, will not be asking for them.”

In the decade since Republicans on Capitol Hill banned earmarks, lawmakers have had to lobby federal agencies to steer money back to their states and districts, a practice that is time consuming for offices and gives lawmakers far less control over how congressional spending is doled out.

Democrats have not formally unveiled their plan to bring back earmarks. House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, has been working on the package and getting buy-in from members. But it’s not clear how Republicans will proceed. The GOP conference rules currently prohibit the use of them, but continuing that practice could put Republicans at a distinct disadvantage as they seek to negotiate on government spending bills full of opportunities to steer funds to their districts. And Democrats have signaled they will also use earmarks in future legislation like infrastructure — the kind of package that would be ripe for members to direct spending back home for roads, bridges and other projects.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has stayed mum on whether he would agree to bringing back earmarks, telling reporters he will not make a decision until he gets more details on the Democratic proposal.

“I know the Democrats have said in the last Congress as well. I haven’t seen anything new. Anytime someone would approach that, they’d have to bring new accountability to it. We would look at that nature, but until that time, we wouldn’t take anything up until we see what they’re proposing,” McCarthy said.

But the GOP leader is facing pushback from some of his own members, and allowing earmarks could potentially hurt his future in leadership and his reputation with conservatives in his conference.

The House Freedom Caucus has said they are opposed to bringing back earmarks, drawing a line on the issue for a powerful wing of the Republican conference.

Freedom Caucus Chair Andy Biggs said during a news conference Thursday that the conservative Republican members will fight Democrats on reinstating the spending practice.

“We’re going to fight the earmarks because what it does is it will lead to corruption,” the Arizona Republican said. “We will fight to make sure our constituents are taken care of but we’re not going to let it be subject to the trading and the corruption that has existed in the past when we’ve had earmarks.”

Earmarks have long been targeted as examples of unnecessary spending by Republicans. Leadership used to woo votes on legislation by offering up the monetary carveouts in exchange for support.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said on a call with reporters Wednesday he had spoken to McCarthy on the issue but didn’t want to speak for him.

The Maryland Democrat also said he knows there are Republicans who want earmarks.

“Have I talked to Mr. McCarthy? I have, but whatever he wants to say, I’ll leave that to him, not to me,” Hoyer said. “On earmarks, I’ve talked to a lot of Republicans who I expect are going to be requesting earmarks for their districts. These are congressional initiatives to help public entities and public projects and nonprofit projects in congressional districts around the country. My view has been this is the constitutional responsibility of the Congress of the United States and that members of Congress know their districts better than almost anybody else.”

Senate Republicans have their own divide.

McConnell told Fox Thursday that “earmarks are very unpopular among Republicans.”

A group of conservative Republicans introduced legislation to keep earmarks banned earlier this month, with senators pledging they’ll fight leadership to try and block the return of the practice.

“I am against them. To me it is one of the things I was glad to see gone and now it is ironic they are trying to bring them back,” said Republican Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana.

McConnell had said he would leave it up to Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee who has backed the practice for years.

Shelby said he has always been supportive of “meritorious, substantive, directed appropriations, but not some of the ones that caused all the stir before.”

“I am not against bringing them back,” the Alabama Republican said. “But we have to make sure they are not frivolous.”

This story has been updated with comments from McConnell on Fox Thursday.

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