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House Republicans agree to continue ban on seeking earmarks

From Evan Glass, CNN Congressional Producer
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Political games with earmarks
  • Moratorium will be written into House rules when Republicans officially take control in January
  • Senate Republicans this week endorsed a nonbinding moratorium on earmarks
  • "Wild card" on the issue will be the president, anti-earmark group's spokesman says
  • Key House Republican: To get to more vital issues, "get the earmark question off the table"

Washington (CNN) -- House Republicans agreed Thursday to continue their ban on requesting earmarks in the upcoming session of Congress.

The moratorium on pet projects will be written into the rules of the House when Republicans officially take control in January, therefore denying Democrats in that chamber the ability to receive such funds.

Senate Republicans this week endorsed a nonbinding moratorium on earmarks -- a reversal for many GOP senators. It appears unlikely, however, that earmarks will disappear entirely from Congress. Democrats in the Senate do not plan on adopting a similar prohibition when they reaffirm their majority status in January.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, one of the fiercest opponents of the earmarking process during his five terms in the House, relishes the potential feud over the legislative procedure that many voters have targeted as a prime example of wasteful spending in Washington.

"That is going to be a battle," Flake said. "That is a contrast a lot of us have been wanting to draw for a long time."`

The fate of earmarks may likely be decided by President Obama, said Steve Ellis, spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that advocates against the practice.

"It is going to end up being a game of budgetary chicken and the wild card will be the president," Ellis said. "Does he step into the fray and triangulate Senate Democrats, saying he'll veto a bill that has earmarks in it? If so, he would strengthen the hand of the House."

But for all the heightened talk on the campaign trail about the evils of pork barrel spending, about $15.9 billion in fiscal year 2010 was related earmarks, according to the Taxpayers for Common Sense. That total constitutes less than 1 percent of the federal government's budget.

House Republicans have laid out some policy proposals to cut spending on a wider scale, including the reduction of government spending to 2008 levels and a freeze on federal employee pay raises, but they have not fully explained how they plan on balancing the budget -- a goal that many of the 86 incoming Republican freshmen called for during the election.

"That whole conversation is just beginning. It is our biggest challenge, without any question," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-California, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee and a longtime supporter of earmarks, who now opposes the practice. "I think we get the earmark question off the table so it doesn't interfere with our ability to deal with real spending."

Flake agrees.

"Everyone there recognizes that earmarks constitute 1 percent of the budget, but I think everyone recognizes as well, unless you are willing to deal with the most visible part, you won't get to the other things. This was important for that reason."