WASHINGTON -- By a sizable -- but dwindling margin -- the Senate on Tuesday voted in favor of allowing lawmakers to keep stocking bills with home-state projects like roads, grants to local police departments and clean-water projects.
But with the House set to tumble into GOP hands and anti-earmark reinforcements coming to the Senate in January, the window seems to be closing on the practice.
Tuesday's 39-56 tally rejected a GOP bid to ban the practice of loading spending bills with so-called earmarks -- those parochial provisions that lawmakers deliver to their states -- but it appears the curtain is coming down on the practice.
Most Democrats and a handful of Republicans combined to defeat the effort, which would have effectively prohibited the Senate from considering legislation containing earmarks like road and bridge projects, community development funding, grants to local police departments and special-interest tax breaks.
The tally, however, was a better showing for earmark opponents, who lost a 29-68 vote earlier this year. Any votes next year should be closer because a band of anti-earmark Republicans is joining the Senate. "More like 45 or better," said earmark opponent Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
Earlier this month, Republicans bowed to tea party activists and passed a party resolution declaring GOP senators would give up earmarks. House Republicans have also given up the practice, but most Democrats say earmarks are a legitimate way to direct taxpayer money to their constituents.
Seven Democrats voted with all but eight Republicans to ban the practice.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Tuesday that Democrats had made the earmarking process far more transparent than it previously had been under GOP control of Congress. The reforms include requiring lawmakers to document every project they seek and receive.
"I believe I have an important responsibility to the state of Illinois and the people I represent to direct federal dollars into projects critically important for our state and its future," Durbin said.
Critics say that peppering most spending bills with hundreds or even thousands of earmark projects creates a go-along-get-along mindset that ensures that Washington spending goes unchecked.
President Barack Obama supports a ban as well, but hasn't fought earmarks in the past two years as Democrats controlling Congress enacted two cycles of appropriations bills studded with them.
Opposition from Senate Republicans leaves Senate Democrats as the only faction of Congress in a position to try to save the practice of earmarking. But their position doesn't seem very strong, since House Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner, R-Ohio, has vowed that no earmark-laden bills will pass after Republicans take over the House.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had long been a strong supporter of earmarks -- they were a big issue in his 2008 campaign -- but reversed course shortly after the GOP's big win in the midterm elections.
McConnell's move headed off an internal party battle over earmarks and came after an election cycle in which prolific earmarkers Robert Bennett, R-Utah, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, lost bids to win the GOP nod for their re-election. (Murkowski subsequently won a rare bid as a write-in candidate.)
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., sponsor of Tuesday's measure, says GOP support will likely increase as old-timers leave the Senate. And GOP moderate Olympia Snowe of Maine -- facing a potential challenge from the right should she seek re-election in 2012 -- switched in favor of the ban after supporting earmarks in a vote in March.
"A lot of the earmarkers are leaving," Coburn said. "And I think people are going to be looking over their shoulders in 2012 a little bit. This isn't the last time we're going to have that vote."
Estimates vary, but earmarks went from more than 1,300 projects worth nearly $8 billion in 1994 to a peak of nearly 14,000 projects worth more than $27 billion in 2005, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group that opposes the practice.
Democrats cut back the number and cost of earmarks somewhat. The new reforms that made the process more transparent have made it easier for outsiders to track a "pay-to-play" system in which lobbyists and corporate executives showered lawmakers with campaign funds in exchange for earmarks.
Coburn said earmarks can create "a conflict of interest that benefits just those we represent from our states or just those who help us become senators. All we have to do is look at campaign contributions and earmarks, and there is a stinky little secret associated with that."
Supporters picked up new help from Democrats Michael Bennet and Mark Udall of Colorado, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Mark Warner of Virginia. At the same time, eight Republicans who were who opposed the ban in a vote in March now have joined with earmark opponents, including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and Snowe.