Earmark battle emerges as late threat to spending bill

The Hill

March 5, 2024 10:38 am

A package of six bills that needs to pass by Friday to avoid a partial government shutdown is drawing intense fire from conservatives in both chambers who are zeroing in on more than 6,000 earmarks buried in the package.

The spending package was initially expected to pass easily but now faces a rocky path in the Senate, where it’s become a political football in the ongoing battle between the GOP leadership and Trump-aligned conservatives.

If conservatives drag out the process, they could force a short shutdown over the weekend.

Senate conservatives are trying to elevate the package in the race to replace outgoing Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — putting McConnell’s top deputy, Senate GOP Whip John Thune (S.D.), in a tough spot.

Thune is locked in a competitive race with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to become the next Senate Republican leader.

If Thune helps push the bill across the finish line, it could hurt his support among Senate conservatives — a key swing bloc, GOP aides and strategists warn.

Cornyn has made a concerted effort to outflank Thune on the right by courting Senate conservatives, according to GOP senators familiar with his behind-the-scenes maneuvers.

“John Cornyn and John Thune are going to be watched very closely how they handle this package. If one votes against it and one votes for it, that’s going to show a big difference and that could move enough votes to make a difference in the race to become Republican leader,” said Brian Darling, a Republican strategist and former Senate aide.

“The pressure on John Cornyn and John Thune is to be much more conservative going forward before the [leadership] election to make sure they don’t generate opposition from conservatives in the caucus who don’t want to see business as usual,” he said.

Getting the bill passed without Thune’s help will be a heavy lift given the whip’s central role in running GOP floor operations.

Thune has requested $116 million worth of earmarks in the spending package, which covers energy and water development, and the departments of the Interior and Transportation and Urban Development, according a list of projects compiled by his office.

He asked for $12 million to expand a water treatment plant in Clay County, South Dakota, and $30 million to address housing supply needs in Butte, Lawrence, Meade, Pennington and other South Dakota counties.

In November, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a minibus appropriations package with three of the six pending bills by an 82-15 vote, with Thune and Cornyn both voting for it.

The political environment within the Senate GOP conference has changed substantially since then.

Former President Trump has won a string of presidential primary contests and now appears to be the inevitable GOP nominee for president, and McConnell — Trump’s chief opponent in the party — last week announced his retirement from leadership at year’s end.

Senate conservatives are trying to take advantage of Trump’s growing power and McConnell’s receding influence by raising their voices and putting pressure on McConnell’s likely successors, Thune and Cornyn, to bend to their will.

That’s what happened last month, when Senate conservatives raised an uproar over the bipartisan border security bill that Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) negotiated with McConnell’s blessing.

They raised enough of a fuss that McConnell’s leadership team abandoned the border security compromise one by one, starting with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Steve Daines (Mont.). Senate Republican Conference Chair John Barrasso (Wyo.) and Cornyn then followed suit.

McConnell and Thune ended up voting against the border security deal even though they initially supported it as the best chance to reform the nation’s asylum laws for the foreseeable future.

Senate conservatives led by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the chair of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) have trained their sights on the spending package that will come to the floor this week.

It would fund the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Interior, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, among others.

Lee wrote on social media that “no Republican should vote for this bill” and ticked off what he saw as its major policy failures, noting it would not prohibit taxpayer funding from being used to prosecute a presidential candidate or being spent on “mail-order chemical abortion drugs” or being used to set up red flag laws to restrict gun ownership.

Scott’s staff counted more than 6,000 earmarks in the bill, a tally confirmed by the nonpartisan research group Taxpayers for Common Sense.