Marathon Voting Session Leads to Senate Budget Passage
Policy + Politics

Marathon Voting Session Leads to Senate Budget Passage

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Senate passed a budget proposal early Friday morning after a marathon voting session in which both parties looked to set themselves up to score political points for the 2016 election.

During “Vote-a-rama,” as it’s been dubbed, senators worked for hours through dozens of amendments to the Republican budget proposal, staying in the Capitol late Thursday into Friday. With their amendments on Iran, defense spending, benefits for same-sex married couples and paid sick time, among other things, senators sought to draw attention to favored political causes, force others to weigh in on big debates and cause headaches for the other party.

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“There’s a lot of smoke and not a lot of fire,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “So much of this is for show.”

In the end, the Republican budget proposal passed, 52-46, with all Democrats voting against it. Senate Republicans say their budget would achieve balance in 10 years and a $3 billion surplus in year 10.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who just launched a White House run, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who many expect will announce one soon, were the only Republicans who voted against the budget.

The amendment process could have lasting implications. The politically charged votes could agitate both the presidential campaign and the battle for the Senate. Four Republican senators are either eyeing White House bids or have already launched them. Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to retake the Senate majority they lost in the 2014 election mainly by targeting Republican incumbents up for reelection in blue and purple states.

Paul introduced an amendment to increase defense spending by nearly $190 billion over the next two years, a notable move given his libertarian leanings on national security. He proposed to cover the cost by trimming spending in other areas of the government.

Paul’s amendment was rejected 96-4. But the vote could enable him to blunt charges in the Republican presidential primary that he is too soft on national security while protecting his fiscally conservative reputation.

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Another potential 2016 contender, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), introduced his own plan to beef up defense spending in the budget but without offsets in other areas. His amendment was also defeated.

The budget is a framework for the appropriations process, not a law. So the amendments are not part of a bill that will ever go to the president’s desk. But they offered a snapshot of what both parties believe to be good politics moving toward a pivotal election.

In the battle for the Senate, “Vote-a-rama” barbs were flying as senators cast vote after vote Thursday.

“Harry Reid Continues His Crusade Against Affordable Energy,” declared a National Republican Senatorial Committee news release hitting the minority leader for voting against a Republican amendment that said it sought to establish a “deficit-neutral reserve fund to protect the United States from an energy tax.” Reid (D-Nev.) is up for reelection in 2016, though he announced Friday morning that he will not run.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, meanwhile, issued a memo saying, “As we approach a slew of amendment votes on the budget in the Senate, one thing has been made imminently clear — vulnerable Republican Senators up for re-election in 2016 are running scared from their records of voting to end Medicare as we know it.”

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Several Republicans up for reelection in 2016 in swing and Democratic-leaning states voted with Democrats on an amendment from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to enable Americans to earn paid sick time that would not add to the deficit. Among them were Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.).

Five of those six Republicans voted for an amendment Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) offered to ensure that same-sex married couples have equal access to Social Security and veterans’ benefits. Toomey voted against the bill, which a total of 11 Republicans supported.

While the politics of negotiations with Iran have divided Democrats and Republicans in recent months, the two parties found some common ground Thursday when all 100 senators voted for an amendment that would establish a fund for sanctions on Iran if it violates an agreement over its nuclear program.

On Thursday, the Senate started voting on amendments around noon. The final vote on the budget did not come until after 3 a.m. Friday.

In the hallways of the Capitol, police officers asked each other how long they were expecting to be on duty. Senators repeatedly ducked off the Senate floor to meet constituents and pose for photographs. Aides ordered barbecue to ensure that the senators stuck in the Capitol wouldn’t be hungry; the smell wafted near the Senate chamber. (“Smells good,” remarked Ayotte, as she walked off the Senate floor.)

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Throughout it all, the lawmakers tried to stay upbeat. “I love it,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) as he made the short walk from his office to the Senate floor Thursday afternoon. Then, the prospect of the long day set in and Cornyn quipped, “Ask me about midnight, okay?”

As dinnertime Thursday approached, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) made his way through the Senate press gallery to hand out pepperoni rolls popular in his home state.

Opening the Senate’s business Thursday morning, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) previewed the battle lines and hinted that the session would stretch on for hours. “Tonight the American people will have their voices heard here in the Senate under new management,” McConnell said. He later added: “We’ll finish the process just as early as members would like to finish the process.”

As Reid noted, Republicans “have a totally different vision” from Democrats on where to take the country in the coming years. In other words: The day’s activities could resurface again and again in campaign mailers, stump speeches and attack ads in 2016.

The Republican-controlled House passed a budget proposal Wednesday that would spend nearly $3.8 trillion in 2016 and projects revenue of just under $3.5 trillion for the next fiscal year. Republicans say the plan would balance the federal budget and create a surplus by 2024.

The proposal would also provide nearly $100 billion in an off-budget account to fight terrorism abroad. Defense hawks demanded the money to supplement Pentagon spending that was set in line with limits imposed by the 2011 across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.

The budget’s passage marked a much-needed win for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who has struggled to corral an unruly group of rank-and-file members. The House and Senate will now have to come together in a conference to hash out the differences between their respective budget frameworks after a two-week recess.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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