Reporting from Washington — An effort by Senate Republicans to temporarily ban earmarks died on the Senate floor Tuesday, but it was far from the last word on the controversial practice.
A three-year moratorium on lawmaker-directed funds for pet projects back home was proposed as an amendment to a food safety bill. The bill passed, but the amendment failed to gain the 67 votes — two-thirds of the Senate — that were required under a procedural hurdle. The proposal failed with 39 yes votes and 56 opposed.
Still, momentum appears to be on the side of anti-earmark forces in Congress. Next year, the new GOP-led House is expected to either formally ban the practice or block any appropriations bill that contains earmarks, which often fund new roads and bridges in home districts and states, but also have long been criticized for supporting vanity projects.
And in the Senate, supporters noted that they garnered more votes Tuesday than in previous attempts to end the practice. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who offered the amendment along with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), invoked the now-infamous $398-million island bridge in Alaska that in 2005 became a symbol of congressional largesse.
"Five years ago, the Senate voted to protect the 'bridge to nowhere' by a vote of 82 to 15. Today, 39 senators vote to end earmarking altogether," Coburn said. "I'll continue to offer this amendment until Congress ends this egregious practice once and for all."
In another sign of the movement's growing force, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reversed his longstanding support for earmarks and voted for Coburn's proposal.
President Obama also has said he supports such a ban.
Senate Republicans this year voted to impose their own, nonbinding ban on earmarks. And even if a formal ban does not come to pass in this lame-duck session or in the new congressional session that begins in January, there may be enough votes in the Senate to block any spending bill that contains earmarks.
The new Senate will also include additional fiscal conservatives likely to support a ban. One, Sen. Mark Kirk, recently sworn in as a Republican from Illinois, voted in favor of the measure Tuesday.
A handful of Democrats, including McCaskill, Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, and outgoing Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, also supported the ban.
At the same time, a handful of Republicans, such as James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and Lisa Murkowski, whose reelection remains contested in Alaska, voted to block the ban from coming to the Senate floor.
Critics have argued that a ban is largely symbolic because earmarks account for about 1% of the federal budget, and some lawmakers argue that they can be a more efficient way to fund projects in their home states.
Earmarks, said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate assistant majority leader, allow him "to direct federal dollars into projects critically important to our state and its future."
Durbin argued that reforms had made the process more transparent and less likely to be abused.
According to the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense, House and Senate spending bills for 2011 so far contain more than 6,500 earmarks at a cost of $9 billion.