WASHINGTON — Marco Rubio will not be sworn in as Florida's new U.S. senator until January, but he has already landed in an intensifying fight over political pork.
Rubio this week signed onto an effort by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to seek a ban on budget earmarks among Republicans in the chamber. The new House GOP leaders have already instituted a moratorium.
"I think earmarks are bad for our country," Rubio said in an interview before Election Day.
But DeMint's budding coalition of lawmakers (14 as of Wednesday) is meeting resistance from veteran Republicans who defend the process as a responsibility of office and accuse critics of playing politics.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said Tuesday he would challenge DeMint when the Senate reconvenes next week and call him out as an earmarker back when the practice was not unpopular.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, meanwhile, was quietly working against the proposed ban. He argues Congress should not turn over spending decisions to the executive branch.
"Every president, Republican or Democrat, would like to have a blank check from Congress to do whatever he chooses to do," McConnell said in a speech last week. "You could eliminate every congressional earmark and you would save no money. It's really an argument about discretion."
The budget for fiscal year 2010 included 9,499 earmarks worth $15.9 billion — about one-half of 1 percent of the $3.5 trillion 2010 federal budget. Still, they have become controversial symbols in recent years with scandals over lobbyists and lawmakers seeking favors for political donors.
The issue played prominently in the election this month.
House GOP leaders, now in the majority, quickly called for a moratorium on earmarks (both parties have some current restrictions) but there has been less fervor in the Senate.
However, most of the new Republican senators, Rubio included, swore them off on the campaign trail. (Rubio took heat from rival Gov. Charlie Crist for seeking millions in funding for special projects while he was speaker of the House.)
In a state like Florida, earmarks have helped fund veterans hospitals, roads, bridges and other projects, even as some have gone more controversially to defense contractors. Rubio could be under pressure to get his share.
He said he'll refuse to seek them regardless of whether the Senate GOP institutes a formal ban.
"I think there should be a regular funding formula where everything is transparent," he said in Pasco County on Oct. 30. "Not where you use your seniority to take money for your state at the disadvantage of the whole country. There are plenty of very successful legislators up there that don't do earmarks."