MCCONNELL CAVES ON EARMARKS…. Almost immediately after the midterms, a contingent of Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), set out to prohibit GOP members from using earmarks in the next Congress. Leading the other side was none other than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Publicly, McConnell was insisting (accurately, by the way) that eliminating earmarks would be a meaningless gesture that wouldn’t actually save any money. He called the very debate “exasperating.” Privately, McConnell was “maneuvering behind the scenes” to defeat DeMint’s gambit.

This afternoon, McConnell, apparently unable to persuade the caucus he ostensibly leads, threw in the towel.

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a longtime defender of the Congressional authority over federal spending, said on Monday that he would support a proposed ban on earmarks, the lawmaker-directed spending items, in the next Congress.

Mr. McConnell, in his opening speech at the start of the lame-duck session, announced that he was changing his position on earmarks to demonstrate to voters and to his colleagues that he was now firmly committed to reducing government spending.

“I have thought about these things long and hard over the past few weeks,” Mr. McConnell said. “I’ve talked with my members. I’ve listened to them. Above all, I have listened to my constituents. And what I’ve concluded is that on the issue of Congressional earmarks, as the leader of my party in the Senate, I have to lead first by example.”

Or to translate this to English, “I’ve discovered that I don’t have the votes to do what I want.”

And with that Mitch McConnell, who’s used earmarks for years and doesn’t want to have to give them up, declared, “Today, I am announcing that I will join the Republican leadership in the House in support of a moratorium on earmarks in the 112th Congress.” He acknowledged that the move is “symbolic” and largely counter-productive, but he’s doing it anyway to impress voters.

I guess this means, by Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) standards, McConnell has been “brainwashed” by “liberals,” too.

For what it’s worth, I should note for context that the moratorium, in addition to leaving spending largely unaffected, also won’t stop the Democratic majority from continuing the practice, forcing GOP senators into a position in which they’ll have to vote against popular appropriations bills that happen to include earmarks.

Also note, the moratorium won’t have the force of law and couldn’t be formally enforced — so Republicans could just go ahead and request earmarks anyway.

It’s not exactly heartening that the first major Republican initiative after the elections is largely meaningless, and intended to do little more than improve their standing in the polls.

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.