WASHINGTON – Even before the new Congress is sworn in, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and an emboldened coalition of tea party-backed senators are challenging the Republican Party establishment by reopening a long-simmering debate over congressional earmarks.

GOP senators plan an internal vote this week on a moratorium proposed by DeMint that would ban Republicans from passing earmarks — lawmakers’ fiercely guarded practice of steering federal money to pet projects in their home states.

DeMint’s moratorium, even if it passes, will be a symbolic gesture at best. It would be a nonbinding Senate Republican Conference rule, meaning that GOP senators could sidestep the rule to insert earmarks into budget appropriation bills.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other earmark defenders, who argue that banning the practice would not actually decrease the budget, have been canvassing the caucus, lining up votes against DeMint’s moratorium.

“The problem is, it doesn’t save any money,” McConnell said last Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “What we really need to do is to concentrate on reducing spending and reducing debt. And this debate doesn’t save any money, which is why it is kind of exasperating to some of us who really want to cut spending.”