Senate Republicans voted Tuesday to abandon the use of budget earmarks that direct money to favored projects, setting up an unusual alliance with the White House and exerting pressure on reluctant Democratic lawmakers to follow suit.
The vote by the GOP caucus for a two-year moratorium on earmarks is not binding on its members, but it provided an early example of the influence of the conservative "tea party" movement after the midterm election. House Republicans are expected to take a similar step Thursday.
Just eight months ago, a proposal to do away with earmarks was shot down in an overwhelming vote of the Senate that included substantial Republican opposition.
Republican and Democratic supporters of the earmark moratorium said they would push for a floor vote that would be binding on all senators, and a promise from President Obama to veto any spending bill containing earmarks.
Democratic leaders face a difficult decision on how to proceed. They show no inclination for doing away with earmark expenditures, even as Obama has expressed his desire to limit the practice and newer Democratic senators have sided with him and Republicans on the issue.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), an unabashed earmark supporter whose reelection victory was due in part to his success at steering federal dollars to his home state, said Tuesday, "I am not going, personally, going to back off of bringing stuff back to Nevada."
Republicans, who took control of the House and expanded their numbers in the Senate, want to show conservative voters that they understand the anti-spending message they believe came from the election.
"This is the first step toward putting our money literally where our mouth is," said incoming Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who won with tea party support.
"If we're going to listen to the American people, we had to show them with this vote," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who led the drive with the support of several incoming senators whose campaigns he had supported.
The transformation of DeMint's renegade anti-earmark campaign into a top Republican priority represented a coup for the conservative senator, whose hardball tactics often alienate his GOP peers.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) more or less ensured that Republicans would agree to the moratorium when he threw his support behind the proposal this week.
He previously was opposed to a moratorium, and like Reid had cited his ability to bring home federal projects in his last reelection campaign.
Several GOP senators who went along with the caucus nevertheless expressed some reservations.
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said he would "reserve the right to ask Congress and the president to approve measures of urgent importance," and Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi said he was "unconvinced that fiscal prudence is effectively advanced by ceding to the Obama administration our constitutional authority to determine federal expenditures."
Many Democratic lawmakers take a similar position, maintaining that it is their constitutional responsibility to make spending decisions, rather than cede that power to the budget coming from the White House.
But several Democratic senators support the moratorium, including Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is pressing for a full Senate floor vote "finally ending the flawed practice of earmarks," possibly this week.
Obama has supported efforts to limit earmarks and welcomed the proposed ban, but it is unclear whether the White House is willing to take the next step of vetoing bills that contain earmarks. Such a showdown could complicate the already difficult process of passing annual spending bills in Congress.
"We'll see how it rolls," said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who will continue to request earmarks. "We know, to be very frank, more than most of these agencies do -- and the president -- in regards to what's important to our districts."
The internal GOP vote came hours after senators from both parties elected their leadership teams for the new Congress, essentially reinstating veteran lawmakers who have led the Senate for the last several years.
McConnell was reelected Republican leader and Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona the Republican whip.
Reid was reelected majority leader and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois the majority whip.
Reid also gave Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York an enhanced role in the No. 3 position, and created a new spot on the Democrats' leadership team for Begich.