WASHINGTON — Despite post-election tough talk about cutting government spending, the Senate refused Tuesday to surrender its power to set aside millions of dollars for special projects back home.
But even though the proposed ban on earmarks through 2012 couldn't muster enough allies, supporters were encouraged.
"We've had many votes over the four years I've been here and we've never gotten this close," said Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, one of the lead sponsors of the ban. "That's the good news. The bad news is it's still a bipartisan problem. We have a number of Republicans who voted 'no,' and way too many Democrats voted 'no.' Hopefully the fight will continue."
A majority of Democrats, joined by eight Republicans, opposed the ban. It was offered as an amendment to a food safety bill, which later passed. The measure to consider the earmark cutoff needed a two-thirds majority to pass and gained only 39 votes, seven of which were from Democrats.
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Its defeat came after recent decisions by Republicans in both houses of Congress to support moratoriums on earmarks next year. It also followed a midterm election campaign that saw Republicans gain power as a result of an electorate that's angry over federal budget deficits and costly government programs.
Earmarks are spending projects that lawmakers drop into the federal budget with little or no scrutiny.
Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, also a lead sponsor of the earmark ban, has referred to them as "the gateway drug to spending addiction in Washington."
The fiscal 2010 budget contained $16 billion worth of earmarks, about 1 percent of all federal spending. Supporters argue that earmarks enhance the quality of life, from improving public infrastructure to increasing social services and cultural amenities. They contend that a ban would have little impact on a deficit that reached $1.3 trillion last year.
"Eliminating earmarks is the cheapest way in town to paint oneself as a fiscal conservative, especially for those who voted for Obama care and the trillion-dollar stimulus bill that have done nothing but pile up massive amounts of debt on our kids and grandkids," said Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, one of the Senate's top recipients of earmarks. He missed the vote.
The Congressional Budget Office said earlier this year that the economic stimulus measure cost $814 billion.
Critics said that Tuesday's vote — merely symbolic or not — was a sign that support for earmarks could erode further in the current political climate. Democrats could suffer if they appear to be the only ones doing it.
"You have Republicans in the House and Republicans in the Senate" supporting the ban, said Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget-watchdog group. "We picked up some more Democrats, and the president has spoken about his concerns about earmarks. We're on the march."
McCaskill's opposition to earmarks has drawn the frustration of many of her Democratic colleagues, as well as the other members of the Missouri delegation, who think that her refusal to use them is hurting the state.
She's acknowledged that the projects that earmarks fund are often "wonderful expenditures of public money." Her complaints and those of other critics are with the process. She called it "secretive."
"This is about not whether your state needs money, but whether you're lucky enough to have a senator on the right committee with the right seniority and right political party," McCaskill said. "That has to offend people."
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