The Senate on Tuesday rejected a proposed ban on the pet spending projects known as earmarks that have become a symbol of wasteful spending for many voters.
Momentum to curtail earmarks had been growing in Congress after Republicans won big in the November 2 elections amid widespread concerns about government spending.
But the proposed earmark ban only picked up 39 votes in the Senate, far short of the 67 it needed to advance in the 100-seat chamber. Fifty-six senators voted against the ban.
Republicans in both the House and the Senate have adopted a voluntary earmark ban, but their unity will be tested as eight broke with their party to vote against giving that ban the force of law and several have indicated that they may continue to seek earmarks next year. Most Democrats also voted against the measure, which would have lasted until October 2013.
Lawmakers from both parties have long favored earmarks as a way to bring federal dollars back home and ease passage of the mammoth spending bills that keep the government running.
Totaling roughly $16 billion in recent years, earmarks account for less than one half of 1% of the federal budget.
But they have factored in a number of corruption scandals and have become a symbol of wasteful spending for many grassroots "Tea Party" activists who helped Republicans win big in the November 2 elections.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn, who proposed the ban, said earmarks too often benefit big campaign contributors.
"The problem isn't earmarks. The problem is the confidence of the American people. They see the conflicts of interest associated with earmarks," he said late Monday on the Senate floor.
Republicans see an earmark ban as a first step in cutting $100 billion in domestic spending next year, when they will control the House of Representatives and wield more clout in the Senate.
President Barack Obama has called for limiting earmarks, though he has not pushed for an outright ban.
Democrats have limited the use of earmarks in recent years, but many ardently back their use as a way to exert some congressional control over the $3.5 trillion federal budget and ensure that worthwhile projects do not depend on the whims of unelected bureaucrats.
"I'm not here to defend earmarks. I'm here to defend my ability to help Maryland," said Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, citing port dredging, law enforcement and children's hospice projects in her home state.
They also pointed out that eliminating earmarks alone would do nothing to bring down budget deficits that have hovered at their highest level since World War II, as they generally displace existing spending.
The ban "does nothing to decrease the debt and is designed to give political cover to those who lack a serious plan for deficit reduction," said Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye, who helped secure $387 million in earmarks in the last fiscal year for everything from termite research to crime prevention.
Some Democrats questioned whether the process of handing out earmarks was any less opaque than the way in which government agencies dole out money.
"I want someone to come to this floor and explain how they get the money," said Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, one of seven Democrats to vote for the ban. "I'm a member of the Senate and I don't know."