WASHINGTON -- The Senate Tuesday rejected a GOP bid to ban the practice of larding spending bills with earmarks -- those pet projects that lawmakers love to send home to their states.
Most Democrats and a handful of Republicans combined to defeat the effort, which would have effectively forbidden 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 39-56 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.
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.
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 projects they seek and receive.
Seven Democrats voted with all but eight Republicans to ban the practice.
"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 Obama supports a ban as well, but hasn't fought them in the past two years.
Opposition from Senate Republicans leaves Senate Democrats are 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 it's difficult to see how House Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would allow any earmark-laden bills to pass.
McConnell 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.
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.
Ban sponsor Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said they 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."