Sparks, Politics, and Amendments Will Fly in Vote-a-Rama

Shane Goldmacher

Senators of both parties promise to offer a raft of amendments Friday as the chamber debates its first budget in four years, taking advantage of the rare procedural chance to force the opposing party into an unlimited number of politically tough votes.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has carefully managed floor proceedings in recent years, which makes Friday’s amendment free-for-all, known in Senate parlance as a “vote-a-rama,” all the more significant.

The opening of the amendment floodgates could have implications both for vulnerable Democratic incumbents in 2014 and for governing in the rest of 2013. The series of votes, which could spill into the wee hours of Saturday morning, has the potential to act as a release valve, easing pent-up partisan pressure in the chamber — depending, of course, on how the evening proceeds.

“There’s a lot of discontent in the Senate, because it has not been run on regular order,” said veteran Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. The coming vote deluge would “allow people to at least express themselves,” he said, adding, “I’m proud of Senator Reid for being willing to at least start to open up a little bit.”

For now, Republicans, who have chafed under Reid’s control of the floor, are readying a battery of hard votes for their Democratic colleagues. Strategists with the National Republican Senatorial Committee have worked with Senate GOP leadership offices in recent days to craft targeted amendments to put Democrats up for reelection in 2014 into a defensive crouch.

“The Vote-a-Thon is going to be more like a 'Truth-a-Thon' for Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Kay Hagan, Mark Begich, and other vulnerable senators trying to hide their liberal agenda from voters back at home,” said Brad Dayspring, an NRSC spokesman.

Among the expected offerings are amendments to strip out unpopular elements of the Obama health care law, including the medical-device tax; several energy-related measures, including one related to the Keystone XL pipeline; and core tax-and-spending messaging votes, GOP lawmakers and aides said.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a 2014 target, isn’t worried.  “I’ve already taken a lot of difficult votes. I’ve been here almost 18 years. I plan to stay and look forward to the difficult ones I’ll have to take in the future,” she said.

Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the voting spree doesn’t matter, because unscrupulous GOP groups would attack Democrats no matter how they vote. “They're going to make whatever attacks they want, no matter how bogus the charge,” he said. “Voters tune that stuff out.”

Democrats, of course, are plotting a thicket of their own amendments, including some for political gain. One will force Senate Republicans on record on the budget blueprint authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman and 2012 vice presidential nominee. That plan passed the GOP-controlled House on Thursday.

“We’re not going to let them run” from that plan, said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the head of the Democratic messaging efforts.

Few Republicans believe the Ryan budget plan is politically toxic; all but 10 House Republicans voted for it. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said he and many of his colleagues would be “happy” to embrace the plan.

Senators had filed more than 130 budget amendments as of Thursday afternoon, with many more expected. Senators can continue to offer new amendments until the voting is over. The only limit on debate is senators’ own willingness to remain in session late into the night to force the nonbinding amendment votes.

Still, Republican leaders were trying Thursday to gently guide the process. Only a few amendments can be voted on each hour, and, with the start of vote-a-rama delayed until possibly as late as 7 p.m. Friday, they want to ensure top-priority amendments will be considered.

Ultimately, the blizzard of votes is more about making political points than policy. Asked about the significance of the budget vote-a-rama, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., faux-snored and pretended to fall asleep. “I think this is all a charade,” he said.

The voting exercise could prove useful if it causes Reid to loosen his grip on allowing GOP amendments on the floor in the future. Why would he do that? The theory, most often floated by Republicans, goes that Republicans will already have twisted Democrats into the toughest votes they can, so what’s the harm in taking such a vote twice?

Notably, Reid said earlier this week that he has set a goal for the Senate to consider all 12 appropriations measures that fund the government individually for fiscal 2014, which would be a marked change from recent years. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the chair of the appropriations panel, said she was “heartened” to hear that goal expressed on both sides of the aisle.

“We need to get back to not that slam-down, lockdown ultimatum politics. I think it will take us beyond brinkmanship and really come up with better policy,” she said.

As for the vote-a-rama easing tensions, Mikulski said it was too early to predict. “We’ll do it one bill at a time — confidence-building measures,” she said. “One bill at a time.”