SENATE REPUBLICANS LAUNCH INTRA-PARTY FIGHT OVER EARMARKS…. In the week since the midterm elections, we’ve seen a few interesting disputes break out among congressional Republicans, who, as a rule, tend to be pretty united. There’s been some frustrated finger-pointing, for example, over Senate seats the GOP likely would have won had they nominated less-unhinged candidates.

But a GOP fight over earmarks appears to be bigger, more divisive, and arguably even more personal.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is maneuvering behind the scenes to defeat a conservative plan aimed at restricting earmarks, setting up a high-stakes showdown that pits the GOP leader and his “Old Bull” allies against Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and a new breed of conservative senators.

In a series of one-on-one conversations with incoming and sitting senators, McConnell is encouraging his colleagues to keep an open mind and not to automatically side with DeMint, whose plan calls on Senate Republicans to unilaterally give up earmarks in the 112th Congress, according to several people familiar with the talks.

DeMint’s proposal, which Senate Republicans are expected to formally consider next week, has already picked up support from some high-profile party leaders, including NRSC Chairman John Cornyn, and several incoming members (Toomey, Rubio, Paul, Lee, Johnson, and Ayotte).

The problem for other members, of course, is that they actually like earmarks. McConnell, in particular, uses them all the time, and doesn’t want to have to give them up. The same goes for other notable caucus members like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

This contingent even has a bomb-thrower, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who’s ready to make this personal.

Inhofe concedes that DeMint is likely to get the moratorium passed by the GOP conference, but says he is prepared to give floor speeches that single out DeMint and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another longtime earmark opponent, for hypocrisy. […]

“I know politically it’s the dumbest thing for me to say I’m for earmarks, but it would cede authority to President Obama,” Inhofe said. “But McCain and DeMint are not being honest about how they define them.”

For what it’s worth, McConnell’s faction, which appears likely to lose, has the much stronger case. Even if DeMint’s measure passes, it wouldn’t actually cut any spending. It also wouldn’t stop the Democratic majority from continuing the practice, and forcing GOP senators to vote against popular appropriations bills that happen to include earmarks.

Best of all, DeMint’s moratorium, if approved, wouldn’t have the force of law and couldn’t be formally enforced — so Republicans could just go ahead and request earmarks anyway.

Dems, meanwhile, aren’t exactly broken up about watching Republicans fight. Next week will be the first time the Senate is back in session since the midterms, and Dems are actually likely to be pleased that the first order of business will be an angry, intra-party dispute within the GOP caucus.

The vote, by the way, will be by secret ballot. Don’t be too surprised if some of the Republicans who say they’re with DeMint on this actually vote against him.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.