WASHINGTON (AP) - In a further tea party win over the Senate GOP establishment, the top Republican in the chamber on Monday unexpectedly fell into line behind demands by House leaders for a moratorium on pork-barrel projects known as "earmarks."
The abrupt surrender by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell represented just the latest insurgent victory over GOP regulars like the Kentucky Republican, who had backed several establishment candidates - one was in his home state - who lost GOP nominations to tea party-backed candidates earlier this year.
Earmarking is the longtime Washington practice in which lawmakers insert money for home-state projects like road and bridge work into spending bills. Critics say that peppering most spending bills with hundreds or even thousands of such projects creates a go-along-get-along mindset that ensures that Washington spending goes unchecked.
McConnell has long defended the practice, but now said he's heeding the message that voters sent in midterm elections that swept Democrats from power in the House. He said he can't accuse Democrats of ignoring the wishes of the American people and then do the same thing.
McConnell's move heads off a battle with conservative Republican senators who had signaled that they would force a vote Tuesday on banning the practice. That vote is now a formality.
"Nearly every day that the Senate's been in session for the past two years, I have come down to this spot and said that Democrats are ignoring the wishes of the American people," McConnell said in a surprise announcement from the Senate floor. "When it comes to earmarks, I won't be guilty of the same thing."
House GOP leaders had already endorsed a ban on earmarking, and McConnell's move signaled a recognition that earmarks were on their way out.
McConnell, a 26-year veteran of the Senate and longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, had argued in the past that banning earmarks would shift too much power to President Barack Obama and wouldn't save taxpayers any money.
"I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. I don't apologize for them," he said. "But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight."
Obama, who endorsed a crackdown on earmarks on Saturday, praised McConnell's move.
"We can't stop with earmarks as they represent only part of the problem," Obama said in a statement. "I look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans to not only end earmark spending, but to find other ways to bring down our deficits for our children."
Just hours before McConnell spoke, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., promoted the ban in remarks to tea party activists at a Capitol rally.
"Tomorrow, the Republicans in the Senate are going to start answering that question: Have we learned our lesson? Are we going to go a different way?" DeMint said. "If the Senate Republicans fail to pass a ban on earmarks tomorrow, obviously they have not gotten the message."
McConnell's move also forestalls a possible fight with the House, where Speaker-to-be John Boehner, R-Ohio, poised to become the most powerful Republican in Washington, had put people on notice that there won't be any earmarks in spending bills.
"House and Senate Republican leaders are listening to the American people and are united in support of an earmark ban," Boehner said. "This is a strong first step - though only a first step - towards making the tough choices required to get our country back on track."
The developments took Senate Democrats, who remain the majority party in the chamber, by surprise, and top Democrats said they stand by the practice. A spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, freshly re-elected after a campaign in which he boasted of his ability to bring home the bacon to Nevada, said Reid believes it's up to each senator to decide whether they'll seek earmarks.
"From delivering $100 million in military projects for Nevada to funding education and public transportation projects in the state, Sen. Reid makes no apologies for delivering for the people of Nevada," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. "He will always fight to ensure the state's needs are met."
For his part, Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii - he delivers hundreds of millions of dollars to his state each year - said that the lame-duck Congress should try to pass a huge omnibus spending bill, along with its thousands of earmarks.
"It is vitally important that we complete work on appropriations bills that contain 99 percent of funds that are not earmarked, and only 1 percent that are," Inouye said.
McConnell's move came as a relief to GOP colleagues caught in the middle of a behind-the-scenes battle between Senate traditionalists and tea party favorites like DeMint and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who have joined with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in a longtime battle - and thus far a losing one - against the bipartisan practice of earmarking.
"That's great," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "Sounds like the issue is behind us."
It was not lost on pro-earmark incumbents that among the new members of the class is Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who defeated Sen. Robert Bennett, a top McConnell ally, in state party caucuses earlier this year that were dominated by tea party activists. McConnell also backed Kentucky Treasurer Trey Grayson in a losing GOP primary bid for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jim Bunning.
Earlier this year, other tea party favorites won GOP primaries against establishment candidates in Florida, Colorado, Delaware, Nevada and Alaska.
And Coburn made waves Monday in an interview with the conservative Weekly Standard in which he endorsed future primary challenges of Republicans who partake in earmarking.
McConnell said most earmarks have merit, such as a project he sponsored to clean up the Bluegrass Army Depot, "which houses some of the deadliest materials and chemical weapons on earth." His success in sending money home to Kentucky played a role in his 2008 re-election bid.
But earmarks have become larger-than-life symbols of wasteful Washington spending, such as the $200 million-plus "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska, a project that was later canceled.
Earmarks also are blamed for a "pay to play" culture in which lobbyists and business executives seeking earmarks lubricate the system with campaign contributions.