What's it like to be at Washington's political ground zero? Ask Dave Wenhold, who trudges to work with two bull's-eyes pinned to his back.

He's a lobbyist and he earns part of his living fighting for special-interest earmarks, those prized pots of money that lobbyists vie for and critics decry.

"It's frustrating because 99.9 percent of us are doing the right thing for our clients all the time," said Wenhold, one of more than 14,000 registered lobbyists in a trade demonized by President Barack Obama and many members of Congress. "I'm proud of what I do. I'm extremely proud of it," said Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists, his profession's trade group.

Even before Obama, the profession was reeling from the influence-peddling scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff, the now-imprisoned former lobbyist famously photographed in his black hat. Congress' battle over a $410 billion spending bill has trained a new spotlight on earmarks.

Barring last-minute changes, the bill contains 8,570 such pet projects for lawmakers' home states and districts worth $7.7 billion, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a conservative group that abhors the practice. They and other critics ridicule projects such as $819,000 for catfish genetics research in Alabama and $95,000 to help the state of New Mexico locate a dental school.

Often, there's a lobbyist who helped get those projects into the bill. Wenhold, a 16-year lobbying veteran, can take credit for $175,000 for Career Gear, a New York City-based nonprofit that provides business clothes and other help to recently released prisoners and other men seeking jobs.

Under pressure from conservatives who have made earmarks a symbol of Washington's gluttony amid unprecedented federal deficits, Obama and Democratic leaders have pledged to curb the practice.

"This is a political muscle system," said Steve Ellis, vice president of the taxpayers group. He argues that influential lawmakers or those in tight re-election races are awarded more earmarks by party leaders, making the projects not only wasteful but unfair. "This is not a meritocracy by any stretch of the imagination."

The criticism hasn't stopped Wenhold and thousands of others from pursuing the projects, which retain overwhelming support from lawmakers because they are ravenously sought by colleges, mayors and other constituents.

"We're not evil by any stretch," said John Sanful, Career Gear's executive director. "We're committed to doing public good."

In the latest demonstration of earmarks' appeal, the Senate last week easily rejected an effort by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to strip the projects from the spending bill. It also batted down a proposal by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to kill 13 of them sought by the PMA Group, which is disbanding its lobbying business after coming under federal investigation.

"I think earmarks will be around as long as members of Congress are elected by people," said Michael Fulton, a 20-year lobbyist who worked on Capitol Hill for a decade.

Wenhold, one of two partners at Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, and other earmark defenders note that such projects make up less than 2 percent of the spending bill's total cost. Besides, they say, lawmakers understand their districts' needs better than federal officials who often make questionable spending decisions.

"You're asking people who are sometimes career-long bureaucrats who've been in Washington 20 years to make decisions on what's going to happen in Portsmouth, N.H.? That doesn't make any sense," Wenhold said.

Wenhold and Fulton say their earmark work is a year-round task. It includes helping clients pitch their plans, filling out detailed applications from members of Congress, arranging letters and visits to lawmakers from hometown supporters _ all to coax the House and Senate Appropriations committees to put the projects into spending bills.

By tradition, about 60 percent of the money for earmarks goes to members of the majority party, currently the Democrats. Fulton estimates that 95 percent of congressional offices he approaches accept earmark requests.

Yet it's highly competitive, with only a small percentage of proposals surviving.

Though Wenhold helped win $175,000 for Career Gear, the group had requested $475,000. And $1 million Wenhold sought for a different nonprofit group didn't make it into the bill at all.

Fulton, who works at the larger GolinHarris International, said the firm had 15 earmarks in the bill. That included $381,000 for a hospital in Carthage, Ill., and $197,000 for California State University at Dominguez Hills. He said he pushed an additional 10 projects that did not make the cut.

"These will stand the test of any third-party group picking them apart," Fulton said.

In a typical year, both men work on a handful of earmarks. Larger powerhouse lobbying firms such as Cassidy & Associates, Van Scoyoc Associates and The Livingston Group usually handle far more.

Fulton said that two years ago, he was working with two Illinois clients and was getting support from Obama's staff when he was still a senator from that state. That help ended when Obama began running for president, Fulton said.

"He polls, and lobbyists don't poll well," Fulton said. "I don't take it personally."

On the Net:

American League of Lobbyists: http://www.alldc.org/

(This version CORRECTS to show that PMA Group is disbanding, not that is has already disbanded.)

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