Both the earmark ban and the new debt ceiling posture keep the Senate Republicans on track with tea party-era attitudes toward spending, diverging from a majority of House Republicans who voted in a secret ballot to back Democrats’ return to earmarking, with extra guardrails. Still, neither the earmark ban nor the debt ceiling language is binding — and that means there’s nothing to prevent individual senators from requesting earmarks or voting to raise the debt ceiling without corresponding cuts.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called the debt ceiling language “aspirational.” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the top Republican appropriator in the upper chamber, said it’s “a statement which we all believe in.”
“It’s a good statement — probably meaningless — but it’s a good statement,” he said.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was among the Republicans who said they will request earmarks as part of the spending process, while Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said he would not participate.
The new focus on fiscal conservatism follows years of Republican support for deficit-busting tax cuts, bigger Pentagon budgets and billions of dollars for a southern border wall touted by Trump. With President Joe Biden now in the White House, a number of Republicans have veered back to caring about the federal debt, unwilling to support the president’s $2 trillion-plus infrastructure proposal and instead floating a smaller package totaling roughly $600 billion to $800 billion.
“We live in fiscally irresponsible times and both parties are equally guilty,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) after the internal discussion on Wednesday.
With Democrats bringing earmarks back no matter what the GOP does, the choice to keep the ban likely won’t affect individual senators’ behavior, since there are no firm rules precluding them from earmarking — ban or no ban. A number of Senate Republicans already plan to propose earmarks, particularly top appropriators who oversee spending for a third of the federal budget, like Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.
“People who want to request earmarks may end up doing that, and people who don’t, won’t,” Cornyn said.
Republicans who don’t want to earmark don’t have to ask for one, Shelby said.
“Even if you ask for one, you might not get one — because the old earmark days, they’re gone,” he said. “They’re gonna have to be meritorious, they’re gonna have to be substantive in nature and meaningful for us to really even consider.“
House Democrats are moving forward with a revamp of the spending process that caps the overall amount of money spent on earmarks to 1 percent of discretionary spending and allows lawmakers to submit no more than 10 project requests, among other things.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who successfully fought in 2019 to make the conference’s earmark ban permanent, said he believed that anti-earmark Republicans “would probably” fall short in their push to keep the ban, until a few days ago. The party’s inertia shifted as they debated the issue more and more internally, he said.
About one-third of the Senate’s 50 Republicans were undecided and “drifting” toward supporting earmarks again before opponents cranked up their arguments, Sasse explained. And Russ Vought, who served as White House budget director under Trump, spoke to Republicans at their lunch on Wednesday to convince them to keep the earmark ban.
“You should care about fiscal responsibility whether you’re in [or] out of power,” Sasse said in an interview Wednesday. “If it’s not a core principle of both parties, it’s something Republicans should use to refine our argument about what we stand for. And I think most people in our conference ultimately get that. But it just took a lot of conversations to focus them on it.“
Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.