Senate Republicans Shun Earmarks, Embracing Spending Restraint Anew

With a Democratic president in the White House, Senate Republicans have a newfound zeal for austerity, foreshadowing spending fights to come.

By Emily Cochrane

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans are trying to reclaim the mantle of fiscal conservatism, adopting multiple symbolic resolutions aimed at curbing federal spending that could lead to clashes with Democrats over President Biden’s infrastructure plan, the government’s ability to continue borrowing money and the dozen annual spending bills.

Under President Donald J. Trump, Republicans largely abandoned their zeal for austerity and endorsed a series of spending increases, including approving more than $3 trillion in 2020 alone to address the economic and health toll of the coronavirus pandemic. But in an internal party vote on Wednesday, they said goodbye to all of that, affirming a series of rules that underscored how, with a Democrat in the White House, Republicans planned to revive demands for big funding cuts.

In a private gathering, they agreed that limitations on the government’s ability to borrow should be paired with either spending cuts or reductions of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. In 2019, lawmakers agreed to suspend the statutory debt ceiling for two years without either caveat, with support from the Trump administration.

The Senate Republican Conference also affirmed an existing, decade-old ban on earmarks, even as the House is poised to revived the practice of allowing individual lawmakers to direct spending to specific projects for their districts and states in legislation. House Republicans last month voted to overturn a similar ban in their conference, as Democrats have said they plan to bring back earmarks with strict new transparency requirements.

The rules that govern the Republican conference are nonbinding and largely symbolic. Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, told reporters that the debt ceiling resolution, put forward by Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, was “aspirational.”

But the measures are an indication of Republican priorities, and could foreshadow big fights to come on an array of issues. The debt limit is one example: If Republicans stick to their rule, it could lead to an impasse over federal borrowing that could force the government to default on its debt obligations.

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