Senate GOP Passes Budget After Marathon Vote Session

Senate GOP Passes Budget After Marathon Vote Session
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It started at noon on Thursday and didn’t stop till more than 15 hours. Senators took breaks, watched college basketball, did cable news hits, met with constituents and ate dinner. Through it all, they kept on voting. And just after 3:30 a.m. Friday, Republicans passed a budget.

The proposal was approved, 52-46, with only two Republicans, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, joining nearly all Democrats in voting no. (There were two abstentions: Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Mikulski.) The budget cuts $5.1 trillion from federal spending over 10 years.

It’s a win for the GOP leadership in both chambers of Congress, as the House and Senate can now come together to create a joint budget resolution, which would allow them to begin the appropriations process. It also opens the door for them to use a process called reconciliation to push an Obamacare repeal -- reconciliation can’t be filibustered in the Senate, so they would be able to force President Obama to veto a repeal of the health care law.

(In a statement Friday, the White House lamented that Republicans had voted “in favor of a budget that relies on top-down economics and gimmicks” and refused “to ask the wealthy to contribute a single dollar to deficit reduction, putting the entire burden on the middle-class, seniors, low-income children and families, and national security.”

(The statement further noted that the president “has been clear that he will not accept a budget that locks in sequestration or one that increases funding for our national security without providing matching increases in funding for our economic security.”)

Before matters reached that final vote, however, it was an exhausting 15½-hour day in the upper chamber, an event dubbed a “vote-o-rama.” Before the Senate votes on the budget proposal put forth by the majority, lawmaker get to propose any amendment they can think up, and dozens of them come to the floor for votes -- more than 50 this year, including those considered earlier in the week.

Because the amendments -- and the budget for that matter -- don’t become law, these were mostly declarations of political preference. The amendments ranged from climate change to added defense spending to raising the minimum wage to allowing states to opt out of Common Core education standards free of punishment.

Generally, the budget amendment process is seen as both a way for senators to show their priorities for constituents and to trap the opposing party with difficult votes. A number of proposals passed, or failed, along party lines.  

For example, a group of Democrats proposed amendments related to climate change, something some Republicans steadfastly deny is taking place or is caused by human activity. One such amendment, from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, said climate change is real, is caused by human activity and that Congress should act to cut carbon pollution. It failed by a single vote, 50-49, Wednesday afternoon.

Conversely, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet’s amendment to address climate change passed on Thursday, 53-47, with seven Republicans joining all Democrats in voting for it.

“This amendment demonstrates that we’re serious about combating climate change and will work to increase investments in clean energy, energy efficiency, and reducing carbon pollution,” Bennet said in a statement.

Several other key votes took place early on, including back-to-back ones on defense spending proposed by potential 2016 presidential candidates. Rubio and Paul each proposed increases in defense funding. The difference was that Rubio’s amendment didn’t include offsets in spending, while Paul’s did.

Fellow 2016 contenders Lindsey Graham and Cruz voted in favor of Rubio’s proposal, which failed by a 68-32 tally. Only four senators -- Paul, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Budget Chairman Mike Enzi and David Vitter – voted for Paul’s amendment.

Democrats were able to push some of their own priorities, as well as some ideas from Obama’s budget. The first vote of the afternoon came on an amendment from Sanders to substantially increase the minimum wage. Not surprisingly, it failed, 52-48, though Republicans Rob Portman and Susan Collins joined Democrats in supporting it. Republicans also shot down a vote on Obama’s proposal for two years of free community college to certain students.

In a victory for Democrats, later in the day they won by a large margin on an amendment proposed by Patty Murray allowing employees to earn paid sick leave. The tally was 61-38, with 15 Republicans voting in favor.

Enough Republicans also joined Democrats to pass an amendment ensuring federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, introduced by Brian Schatz; the measure had 11 GOP supporters. 

“Gay couples legally married in any state should be entitled to veterans and Social Security benefits identical to any other married couples,” Schatz said in a statement. “Tonight, 11 Republicans joined Democrats in recognizing that gay couples deserve equal treatment, regardless of where they live.  We still have work to do to, but this is progress and a win for equal rights.”

On the GOP side, they passed on party-line votes amendments to eliminate the estate tax and allow states to opt out of Common Core, and got four Democrats to join them on an amendment prohibiting federal taxes or fees on carbon emissions.

Though a large number of votes fell directly along party lines, some were decidedly less controversial. Mark Kirk posed an amendment that would re-impose sanctions on Iran if it violates a nuclear agreement being negotiated. Kirk called it “the key Iran vote of this session of Congress.” It passed, 100-0.

Though the votes continued for hours on end, most senators were unruffled by the process. Throughout the afternoon and early evening they could be seen ducking out of the chamber to meet and take pictures with constituents; colleagues from different parties chatted pleasantly on the Senate floor; for dinner, they all dined on barbeque, with Majority Leader McConnell picking up the tab.

Some weren’t exactly pleased with the glacial pace, though. Mike Enzi, the chairman of the budget committee, harped on his colleagues around dinnertime for taking too long with their votes, saying they would need someone to pay for Friday’s meals if the pace didn’t quicken.

“Unless we can speed this up, what we’re looking for is a volunteer for breakfast and for lunch tomorrow,” he said. “Looking at the list of amendments, I’m pretty serious about all of that. So we need to speed it up.” 

Though reporters didn’t get to share in the barbeque, Joe Manchin stopped by the press gallery in the late afternoon to toss out pepperoni rolls from his home state of West Virginia.

Shortly after 1:30 a.m., senators came to an agreement: three more amendments each before the final vote on the budget. The long night may have weighed on some in the chamber, but freshman Steve Daines was upbeat about his first vote-o-rama. 

Asked at around 9 p.m. Thursday how he was holding up, Daines said jovially, “Good. Great,” adding that he was “absolutely” having fun. Asked if he’d still be feeling that way in a few hours, he replied with a laugh, “Ask me then.”

More than four hours later, shortly after 1:30 a.m. Friday, Daines said with a grin that he was “doing great.” Still having fun? “Absolutely, you betcha!”

This article was updated at 10:55 a.m. March 27.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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