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And in a final cleanup of 2010 action, Senate Republicans filibustered the Dream Act, which would grant legal status to hundreds of thousands of illegal-immigrant children and young adults who pursue an education or military service here in the U.S. That likely takes the issue of legalizing illegal immigrants off the table for the next two years, though it keeps immigration as a campaign issue in the next election.

But possibly more important for 2012 was a test of the continued influence of the “tea party” movement and its desire to limit government spending. That came to a head over Democratic leaders’ effort to pass a yearlong, $1.1 trillion spending bill with more than $8 billion in earmarks and including funding for many programs the administration says are wasteful.

Club for Growth President Chris Chocola delivered a clear ultimatum to the Republicans on the measure.

“Any congressional Republican who supports the Democratic leadership’s porked-up monstrosity would forfeit any claim to fiscal responsibility and economic conservatism,” said Mr. Chocola, a former Republican congressman from Indiana. “Every Republican ‘aye’ vote will likely face a serious primary challenge from the right in their next re-election campaign, and should.”

Other conservative activists, though, took a wait-and-see approach.

Ryan Ellis, tax-policy director at Americans for Tax Reform, said that lawmakers who support the spending proposal floated by Democrats are “totally not getting the message of the last election,” but added that “it’s way too early to translate that into anything 2012.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, thought he had enough Republican support to pass the bill, only to see all of it flee, forcing him to pull the bill and instead pass a short-term stopgap measure without earmarks.

Some say the influence of the coming 2012 election couldnt have been starker in the case of Sen. Joe Manchin III, the newly elected West Virginia Democrat who replaced the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

Mr. Manchin was missing in action when Democrats called a vote on two issues - the Dream Act and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” - that are vital to their activist base, but unpopular in conservative states.

The West Virginian later explained that he was at a Christmas party with his family, but Republicans suggested his next campaign slogan should be: “No voting, no labels - and no skipping Christmas parties, no matter what.”

Isaac Wood of the University of Virginias Center for Politics said Mr. Manchin “certainly was not seeking a nomination for the next edition of ‘Profiles in Courage.’ “

“The short-term political hit could be worth it, he hopes, if at re-election time he does not have a glaring ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote that will infuriate either Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “Still, he will have other tough votes to face in the next two years, and he can’t dodge them all. Too bad for him Christmas parties are not thrown year-round.”

c Joseph Weber contributed to this report.