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How tea party senators stared down Mitch McConnell on earmark ban

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Republican freshmen Sens.-elect Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Mike Lee of Utah took the lead organizing GOP freshmen to push for an earmark ban, despite the expected opposition of current Senate GOP leaders. On Friday, Mr. Lee, in an e-mail, called on the GOP caucus to hold a public, recorded vote on this issue, rather than the scheduled vote by secret ballot.

“The public has decided that both [parties] are untrustworthy,” said Mr. Paul, a tea party leader whose primary victory against a GOP establishment-backed rival was an early sign of the impact of conservative protesters in the 2010 election. Earmarks are a key issue because they “symbolize the waste up here, and people are annoyed by [them],” he said, in between freshmen orientation sessions on Monday.

How big a deal are earmarks?

Earmarks account for less than 1 percent of the federal budget but take up an outsize share of lawmakers’ time. Conservative critics dub them “favor factories” and a “gateway drug” to big government, deficit spending. A handful of GOP lawmakers – notably Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona – mounted scores of failed challenges to specific earmarks for years, most of which lost by lopsided votes.

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