WASHINGTON - Democrats controlling the Senate on Thursday abandoned a catchall spending measure that combined nearly $1.3 trillion worth of unfinished budget work, including a further $158 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 1,924-page bill collapsed of its own weight after an outcry from conservatives who complained that it was stuffed with more than $8 billion in homestate pet projects, known as earmarks, and wrapped together 12 bills into a single foot-tall piece of legislation that Democrats had hoped to pass with just a couple of days of debate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) gave up on the bill after several Republicans who had been thinking of voting for it pulled back their support.
Reid said he would work with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) to produce a short-term funding measure to keep the government running into early next year.
McConnell had thrown his weight against the catchall bill in recent days, saying it was "unbelievable" that Democrats would try to muscle through, in the days before Christmas, legislation that usually takes months to debate.
"This is exactly the kind of thing the American people voted against in November," McConnell had said. "Americans don't want massive, trillion-dollar bills rushed through Congress on our way out the door - they want us to be careful and responsible with their money."
The turn of events was a major victory for earmark opponents such as Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), who for years have been steamrolled by the old-school members of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
But the spending barons saw their power ebb in the wake of midterm elections that delivered major gains for Republicans - with considerable help from antispending tea party activists.
More than two dozen senators, most of them Republicans, who recently voted to ban homestate projects had claimed hundreds of earmarks in the catchall measure.
Notwithstanding McConnell's opposition to the bill, it contained $85 million of his earmarks, including $18 million for a railhead upgrade at Fort Knox and a $3 million infantry-squad battle course at Fort Campbell. All told, McConnell had obtained 38 earmarks, according to a database put together by Coburn's office.
Reid said earlier Thursday that some of those who speak out against earmarks "are people who have more earmarks than others. If you went to H in a dictionary and found hypocrite, under that would be people who ask for earmarks but vote against them."