U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint was unable to persuade his colleagues Wednesday to reject the controversial practice of trading votes for earmarks.
The South Carolina Republican wanted the Senate to suspend its rules and pass an amendment addressing what some saw as the most unsavory element of this year's health care debate: Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and others winning earmarks in exchange for supporting the Senate's health care bill.
Nelson, who bargained for special Medicaid payments for his home state, was one of seven Democrats who actually voted with DeMint and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., not to table DeMint's motion. They were defeated 53-46.
DeMint, chairman of the Senate Steering Committee, explained why he sought the vote by saying, "The American people are disgusted by the earmarks, kickbacks and back-room deals that have been used to buy votes for this health care takeover. We had a chance today to put an end to this practice, but Senate Democrats voted for business as usual."
He called the practice "political bribery" and "Washington at its worst." He said Nelson was trying to have it both ways, as "he was for trading his vote for earmarks before he was against it."
Because Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had blocked further amendments to the health care bill, DeMint had to seek the suspension of the Senate's rules, an unusual parliamentary move, to get an up-or-down vote on his amendment.
Democrats accused DeMint of trying to block health care reform, which it noted would provide health insurance for 764,000 South Carolinians.
"Jim DeMint proved he cares more about political posturing than increasing health care coverage for people in South Carolina," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Eric Schultz said.
DeMint noted that the House of Representatives has a rule that prohibits trading votes for earmarks, but the Senate doesn't. He said the Senate passed a vote-trading ban in 2007 by 98-0, but it later was dropped behind closed doors.
DeMint said if it were not, the health care bill would not have advanced this far. DeMint has been one of the Senate's most vocal critics of earmarks. While he sought some earlier in his congressional career, he has not in recent years.
South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster has said he will participate in a review of the constitutionality of Nelson's deal.