WASHINGTON Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Monday that he would join his fellow Republicans in opposing earmarks, bowing to pressure from Tea Party activists who see the special project funding as a prime example of out-of-control government spending.
Speaking from the Senate floor, McConnell said that after discussing the issue with his constituents in Kentucky and fellow Republicans he supports the ban against earmarks.
"I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. I don't apologize for them," said McConnell, from Kentucky.
"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," he added.
President Barack Obama, who has pushed to limit earmarks, welcomed McConnell's new position and added that Washington will need to do more to cut down on waste.
"We can't stop with earmarks as they represent only part of the problem," Obama said in a statement.
Spending is coming under increased scrutiny as Congress looks for ways to shrink the $1.29 trillion budget deficit.
A little more than a week ago, McConnell questioned the value of banning earmarks, a way for lawmakers to use spending bills to funnel federal money to projects in their districts or states.
McConnell has requested $114 million worth of earmarks in spending bills, mostly for Kentucky, for the current fiscal year, which Congress has yet to complete, according to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.
Senate Democrats have shown little support for an earmark moratorium. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye has said he supports greater transparency on earmarks but not a ban.
In a statement on Monday, Inouye said he was "disappointed" by McConnell's statement, adding that it would weaken Congress's power over federal spending.
Democrats still control both chambers of Congress until January, when new lawmakers who were elected at the midterm elections this month take their place and the House becomes controlled by Republicans. Government spending was a major issue in the elections.
Earmarks have accounted for roughly $16 billion of federal spending in recent years, less than 1 percent of the federal budget that Congress controls directly.
Senator Jim DeMint, a strong supporter of the Tea Party movement, has been pushing fellow Republicans to join a ban on earmarks when the new Congress is seated in January. He has eight co-sponsors for a moratorium and many of the newly elected Republican Senators also back it, including Tea Party favorites Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey.
Senate Republicans are expected to vote on the proposed ban in a closed-door party meeting on Tuesday.
"His statement today and tomorrow's vote to enact the moratorium will send a clear signal to voters that Republicans heard the message of the last election," DeMint said.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn said he will try to force a public Senate vote on the earmark ban later this week.
House Republican leaders said they plan an early vote on banning earmarks in January when they're in control.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Philip Barbara)