WASHINGTON -- The era of zealous earmarking championed by former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens may be over but the U.S. Senate on Tuesday couldn't quite keep itself from ending the practice altogether.
Both of Alaska's senators cast votes Tuesday against a proposed earmark ban, saying their young state still has critical needs that are best served by their ability to set aside millions of dollars for special projects back home.
"I am committed to addressing Alaska's enormous infrastructure needs and will continue to support requests from Alaskans for community-backed investments in public buildings, roads, ports and other projects and programs that create jobs, strengthen our communities and keep our economy moving," said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, called the vote "long on bravado but short on substance." The rest of the Republican Senate conference voted earlier this month on a separate, internal ban on GOP requests for earmarks but Murkowski didn't support that, either.
"We recognize that we need to stop out-of-control spending but we need to make sure that any action we take actually translates into spending and deficit reduction rather than just messaging," she said.
The earmark moratorium was sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who in the past has called the special spending requests "the gateway drug to spending addiction in Washington."
Including Murkowski, eight Republicans voted against a procedural measure to consider the amendment. It needed a two-thirds majority to pass but gained only 39 votes. Seven Democrats voted for it.
One of those Democrats, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, said that regardless of the outcome, she was encouraged.
"We've had many votes over the four years I've been here and we've never gotten this close," said McCaskill, 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."
Responding in part to voter anger over the deficit and costly government programs in the economic stimulus bill, House Republicans last month voted on an earmark ban that will take effect when they assume control of the chamber in January.
Their Senate Republican counterparts followed suit, minus Murkowski's support.
The fiscal 2010 budget contained $16 billion worth of earmarks, about 1 percent of all federal spending. Earmarks are spending projects that lawmakers drop into the federal budget, often with little or no scrutiny.
Both of Alaska's senators argue that earmarks are necessary to bring Alaska's infrastructure and social services to the level of other, older states. It's a position long held by Stevens and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who also continues to support earmarks in the face of the House ban on them.
Supporters, including Murkowski, also contend that a ban would have little impact on a deficit that reached $1.3 trillion last year.
The failed earmark ban was part of a broader food safety bill that increases Food and Drug Administration inspections of food processing facilities and forces producers to recall tainted foods. It does not cover meat, poultry or processed eggs, which are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Both Begich and Murkowski voted for the overall food safety bill, which passed 73-25.