Under President Donald J. Trump, Republicans had largely abandoned their zeal for austerity and endorsed a series of spending increases. But with a Democratic president in the White House, Senate Republicans are trying to reclaim the mantle of fiscal conservatism by adopting multiple symbolic resolutions aimed at curbing federal spending.
In an internal party vote on Wednesday, the Senate Republican Conference 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 had agreed to suspend the statutory debt ceiling for two years without either caveat, with support from the Trump administration.
Senate Republicans 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, but they are an indication of Republican priorities.
“I certainly hope that every member of the Republican conference complies with what the conference rules say,” said Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas.
The measures 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. The debt limit is another 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.
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, told reporters that the debt ceiling resolution, put forward by Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, was “aspirational.”
The loss of earmarks is seen by many as a factor behind the gridlock that has plagued Congress. They came to be seen as a symbol of self-dealing and waste in government and grew increasingly toxic as a wave of self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives washed into Congress. But the practice of allowing lawmakers to set aside funding in huge government funding bills for individual projects in their communities gives them the chance to reflect the needs of their constituents and a mechanism for leaders to finesse tough votes on legislation.
“If you don’t want an earmark, don’t ask for one,” said Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee. “And even if you ask for one, you might not get one because the old earmark days — they’re gone.”