The Senate on Tuesday rejected a moratorium on earmark spending, in a test vote that nonetheless showed surging support for a ban and left foes of pork-barrel spending predicting that the end of the practice is near.
Thirty-nine senators supported a three-year ban - 10 more than voted for a similar moratorium earlier this year. Opponents will gain reinforcements next year when they are joined by the winners of November's elections.
"We made a positive step. Some new help will come in. With a little Democratic support, we're getting close to 50 on that," said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican and a leading critic of earmark spending.
The defeat of the ban shows how popular the power of the purse remains among senators, particularly Democrats. Of the 39 senators who backed a moratorium, just seven were Democrats. Meanwhile, 56 senators - eight Republicans, two independents and 46 Democrats - voted to preserve earmarking powers.
But more and more lawmakers who voted against previous bans have switched positions, arguing that voters are clearly demanding that Congress change its ways.
Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, said he concluded it's time for an "appropriate timeout" on earmarks, while Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said he thinks the economy is too shaky to support this kind of spending.
"There's no doubt these projects are worthwhile. But it's understandable Congress would have wanted to cut funding like this, given the backdrop of the economy," said Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin.
Two other Democrats, Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado, also changed their stance and embraced a ban.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, the third-ranking Republican in the chamber, voted against bans twice this year, but said he now supports a short-term moratorium, with built-in exceptions.
"A timeout will permit Congress to limit the number of earmarks and make sure they are worthy," he said. "I will respect this moratorium, although in extraordinary cases I reserve the right to ask Congress and the president to approve measures of urgent importance to Tennesseans, such as funds to help those hurt by the devastating flooding last May."
Tuesday's vote, coupled with the stated positions of incoming lawmakers, suggests that at least 42 senators in 2011 would support a moratorium, according to an analysis by The Washington Times. Republicans will gain a net of six more seats in the next Senate, but Democrats will still hold a 53-47 majority.
But Mr. DeMint said it may not even take a GOP majority to halt earmarks. House Republicans, who will control the lower chamber beginning in January, have voted to forgo earmarks, and they could use control of the House to reject any spending bill that contains the targeted spending projects.
The House GOP leadership has not publicly addressed that option.
Senate Republicans also have voted not to request earmarks in the next Congress, and Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, which has pushed for a moratorium, said the first test will be to see how well they hold ranks. Keeping individual members from defying the ban would put pressure on all sides.
Mr. Ellis also said President Obama could have a major effect on the future of earmarks by saying he won't accept bills loaded up with special-interest projects.
But not all Republicans are on board with the anti-earmark crusade. Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said Congress would have been ceding its constitutional authority to spend money if it adopted the moratorium.
Earmark supporters say the amounts in question are a small fraction of the overall budget, and that banning earmarks on Capitol Hill would only give bureaucrats in the executive branch more power to decide how taxpayer dollars are spent.
"The real problem is not earmarks," he said. "The real problem is that during that two-year period - when everyone is concerned about a few dollars - we found out we have increased the debt more than it has been increased in the history of this country, and we have given my 20 kids and grandkids a $3 trillion deficit in just two years."
He pointedly noted that the sponsor of Tuesday's amendment, Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, voted for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout plan and the $50 billion world AIDS relief bill - both of which Mr. Inhofe opposed as bloated spending.
Mr. Coburn said after the vote that while earmarks account for a small percentage of federal spending - less than half a percent in the last fiscal year - they are a "gateway drug" to more spending.
"As earmarks exploded, so did the size of the federal budget, which has doubled in the past decade," Mr. Coburn said.
The issue has produced some interesting patterns in the five votes held over the past four years.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, voted for a two-year moratorium earlier this year, but just two days later voted against a moratorium that would have remained in place as long as the federal government ran a deficit.
Sen. Jim Bunning, a fellow Kentucky Republican, voted against bans up until Tuesday. He is resigning at the end of this year and will be replaced by Rand Paul, a Republican who has taken a stance against earmarks.
Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican seated on Monday after winning a special election to fill Mr. Obama's former seat from Illinois, replaced Sen. Roland W. Burris, an earmark supporter. Mr. Burris replaced Mr. Obama, a former earmarker who came to oppose the practice during his final year in the Senate.
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