Senate Republicans agree to keep a symbolic ban on earmarks, but may use them anyway.


Senate Republicans agreed on Wednesday to uphold a largely symbolic conference ban on earmarks, even as the rest of Congress is poised to bring back the practice with strict transparency requirements.

The decision to maintain the prohibition on earmarks — the practice of letting lawmakers set aside funding in large spending bills for individual projects in their communities — underscored how some Republicans, after disregarding deficit fears during the Trump administration and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, are quickly embracing fiscal conservatism under a Democratic president. House Republicans voted last month to overturn a similar ban in their conference.

But because conference rules are nonbinding, multiple senators signaled that they would take advantage of earmarks anyway as Democrats recast the process as “community project funding” and impose a series of guardrails to ward off abuse.

“Democrats are going to use the earmarks and the House Republicans are going to use them — are we going to give the Democrats in the Senate $8 billion to use against us?” said Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “If you don’t want to ask for an earmark, don’t ask for one. If you ask for one, you might not get one, because the old earmark days — they’re gone.”

Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, told reporters that she planned to “look seriously at earmarks.”

“If I can make my voice heard and be specific on it and mindful of the transparency, I don’t have a problem with that,” Ms. Capito, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said.

The use of earmarks in huge government funding bills during the 1990s and 2000s gave lawmakers a chance to reflect the needs of their constituents and provided a mechanism for leaders to finesse tough votes on legislation.

But they also became a symbol of government largess and waste, particularly as a wave of self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives washed into Congress. After a series of scandals, including one that led to the imprisonment of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Congress banned earmarks.

Under guidelines outlined by House Democrats, lawmakers would be required to disclose each project request on their congressional website and certify that no one in their family stood to benefit from it. Only 1 percent of the money the government appropriated each year, outside of entitlement spending, would be available for earmarks, and each member would be allowed up to 10 requests. The Government Accountability Office would also audit some of the projects.

The projects would only be funded if Congress reached agreements on the dozen annual spending bills and the top-line levels for domestic and military spending.

The Senate Republican conference also agreed to an amendment put forward by Senator Rick Scott of Florida, stating that the debt ceiling should not be raised without spending cuts or structural reform.

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