By RAJU CHEBIUM
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (Gannett News Service) - Sen. Jim DeMint, newly emboldened by the Election Day victories of conservative candidates he backed, is preparing to clash with the Senate's top Republican over lawmakers' practice of spending federal money on pet projects back home.
On Tuesday, when Republicans meet to plot their course for the Congress that convenes in January, DeMint will ask other GOP senators to ban such projects - or earmarks - for the next two years.
One Republican already on the record against the idea is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
The difference of opinion could culminate in a showdown between DeMint, an ultraconservative upstart enjoying increased clout as a result of the recent elections, and the most powerful member of the Republican establishment.
DeMint told Gannett Washington Bureau recently he supports McConnell and doesn't plan to challenge him for the minority leader post. But the earmark conflict could spawn other philosophical fights between the two.
House Republicans, who adopted an earmark ban two years ago, are expected to extend it for the next Congress. That would put more pressure on McConnell and would give DeMint and the 13 senators backing him extra ammunition for a Senate ban.
"Americans want Congress to shut down the earmark favor factory, and next week I believe House and Senate Republicans will unite to stop pork barrel spending," DeMint said in a statement. "Instead of spending time chasing money for pet projects, lawmakers will be able to focus on balancing the budget, reforming the tax code and repealing the costly health care takeover."
Supporting DeMint's effort are Sens.-elect Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Mike Lee of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. All were backed by the tea party movement.
DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee contributed $5 million to 12 tea party-backed candidates, including all the newly elected members except Ayotte.
Other GOP senators supporting DeMint's call for an earmark ban include Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, John Ensign of Nevada, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Cornyn of Texas.
McConnell said earmarks help Congress fulfill its constitutional role of deciding how to spend tax dollars. Scrapping them would strengthen the executive branch's power to make spending decisions, which doesn't sit well with many GOP senators, McConnell told CBS's Face the Nation program on Nov. 7.
McConnell said he would consider approving a ban that would apply to all senators, but he added, ``What we really need to do is to concentrate on reducing spending and reducing debt. And this debate (over earmarks) doesn't save any money, which is why it's kind of exasperating to some of us who really want to cut spending."
Last year's budget included 9,500 earmarks - for local road and bridge projects, social service programs and military bases - totaling nearly $16 billion, a fraction of the more than $1 trillion the federal government spends each year.
Congressional lawmakers aren't the only ones who insert earmark requests into spending bills. The White House does as well.
South Carolina received about $351 million in earmarks last year, despite DeMint's refusal to seek them. All other members of the Palmetto State delegation sought earmarks, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group.
Budget watchdog Robert Bixby, who heads the Concord Coalition, said banning earmarks would be more symbolic than substantive and would do little to solve the government's fiscal problems.
"I think earmark reform goes more to the issue of good government than fiscal responsibility," Bixby said.
He said earmarks "raise the specter of what campaign contributors expect to get. It has a slightly corrupt feel to it."
The co-chairmen of a bipartisan deficit-reduction advisory commission created by President Barack Obama released preliminary recommendations Wednesday that include a recommendation to scrap earmarks. The commission will release its final recommendations next month.
The co-chairmen, former Democratic White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, also recommended sweeping changes to Social Security, cutting $1.5 trillion in military and domestic spending, and ending popular tax breaks.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, and other critics of earmarks say they'll keep seeking them as long as Congress allows the practice because South Carolina would be shortchanged otherwise. Graham says his earmark requests are practical and necessary.
An earmark request for $400,000 to study the deepening of the Port of Charleston has become a sticking point between South Carolina's two senators. DeMint has refused to co-sponsor the request.
His refusal could lessen South Carolina's chances of getting that money. Earmark requests backed by both senators from a state have a better chance of approval.
The total cost of the Charleston project is at least $300 million. Port officials worry that if they pay the initial feasibility-study cost, it will jeopardize federal funding for the project. Normally, a cost-sharing system is in place where the federal government will pay 40 percent of the construction bill to deepen the harbor, with the state paying the remaining 60 percent, a port spokesman said.
"The earmark process is abused and needs to be reformed," Graham said in a recent telephone interview. "But I am going to be single-minded when it comes to the Charleston Harbor staying viable. If there is a better way than the earmark process to do that, I am open to it."