Senate ‘Vote-a-Rama’ takes all night with Democrats’ agenda at stake

WASHINGTON — A hazy Senator Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat who brokered the climate, health and tax deal that was on a slide to passage within hours, sat silently at his desk in the Senate Chamber around midnight on Saturday, staring blankly to the middle distance while munching on M&M’s.

A triumph was near at hand on a substantial piece of the Democrats’ domestic agenda – but first Mr. Manchin and his colleagues would have to endure an entire night fueled by junk food and caffeine, perhaps some booze and plenty of politically charged speeches, while they debated and voted on a quick series of non-binding amendments.

The vote-a-rama (yes, that’s what it’s called), a well-known but reviled ritual for the 80-somethings and elders who make up the Senate, started late Saturday night and lasted until Sunday afternoon. It was one last chance for Republicans to try to derail Democrats’ highest legislative priority — or at least provoke political attacks against them on their way through — and a test of Democratic determination to push their delicate compromise. to keep.

It was also the ultimate display of senatorial craziness and dysfunction — a time-consuming exercise that has little impact on policy, but keeps senators up all night and ends only when they run out of steam to propose more amendments. That happened on Sunday afternoon, after about 4 pm.

“Do you know how much I will miss vote-a-rama?” said Senator Patrick J. Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania who will retire this year. “The answer is not at all.”

The vote-a-rama is part of the secretive process known as reconciliation that the Democrats are using to get their sweeping climate, energy and tax package through Congress. It shields certain budgetary legislation from a filibuster, allowing it to be passed by a simple majority rather than the normal 60 votes needed to avoid a Republican filibuster. But it also allows any senator to make any proposal to change the legislation when it hits the floor. That gives rise to all kinds of political comments, in this case just a few months before the midterm elections.

In anticipation of the theatrical performances, senators filled their offices with blankets, snacks and energy drinks. On Saturday night, takeaways were on display all over the Capitol hallways. At 8 a.m. Sunday, more than eight hours after it began, the Senators sat back in their seats and Oregon Democrat Senator Jeff Merkley let out a yawn and rubbed his eyes.

It was the fourth vote-a-rama for the current Congress, with previous episodes drawing about 40 votes each. This time, as in the past, Democrats stood together to fend off Republican attempts to torpedo their bill and beat amendments along party lines. A total of 41 proposed changes were considered and voted on.

They include an effort to reduce funding for the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. Republican senators also tried but failed to add oil and gas lease sales in certain states.

In an effort to squeeze Democrats on a politically potent topic, Republicans forced a vote to abolish a tax on gas and energy companies, which they believe would drive the country into recession and drive prices down. would increase at the pump.

Republicans managed to make a number of changes to the bill, including passing a provision that would have capped insulin prices to $35 a month. Democrats left it in the legislation, even out of concern that it could violate reconciliation rules, effectively allowing Republicans to demand the removal of a popular measure and officially vote to do so. (The move left the cap intact for Medicare patients, millions of whom have diabetes and can still benefit from it.)

Republicans, with the help of seven Democrats, including Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, also won an amendment that would narrow the scope of a new 15 percent minimum corporate tax.

Members of the Democratic caucus also used the process to make their own political points. Senator Bernie Sanders, 80, the chair of the Vermont Independent and Budget Committee, made several proposals throughout the night expressing his disappointment at how much the bill had been scaled back. “This could actually be the very last time in a long time that people will have a chance to vote” on progressive issues, Mr Sanders said at about 8:30 a.m. Sunday morning, his eyes bloodshot after a sleepless night.

But Democrats were determined to resist the temptation to change the legislation in the least for fear of losing their caucus’ unanimous support for a fragile compromise.

“This one is so subtly balanced that ANY change, even a ‘good’ one, threatens to upset the balance — so be on the lookout for lots of ‘no’ votes on things we’d normally like,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat , explained in a Twitter post.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic added another element of risk to the session as the 100 senators — the oldest class in recent history — gathered for hours to vote in a confined indoor space. With their minimal margin of control in the 50-50 Senate, the Democrats couldn’t even afford a disease that could rob them of their majority.

“With the way Covid numbers are now, it’s likely that one of those individuals could have Covid,” said Kirsten Coleman, an assistant research professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, who noted that the event was created perfect conditions for a super spreading event.

“I would be especially careful because there is an older age group, who are at greater risk of a more serious disease if they get Covid,” she added.

Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn wondered aloud whether Democrats could have chosen not to test for Covid so as not to jeopardize their bill. , prison staff, food service workers and countless others who keep this institution going.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, 89, said she wasn’t particularly concerned as she planned to be masked and take the necessary precautions. She added that she had tested in the run-up to the weekend.

“I’m not afraid of it. We’re doing our best,” Ms. Feinstein said.

Hawaii Democrat Senator Brian Schatz said he started wearing N-95 masks again last week because he “didn’t want to get Covid and screwed this up.”

Still, things went on as usual with mostly unmasked lawmakers huddled on the Senate floor rather than isolated in their personal offices, as many did during the vote-a-ramas last year.

The vote-a-rama brought Senator Patrick Leahy, 82, a Democrat from Vermont, back to the Capitol for the first time since his hip surgery last month. An aide escorted the senator, who serves as president pro tempore, through the Capitol in a wheelchair decorated with a Batman decal.

The senators prepared for the long evening as they normally did for the vote-a-ramas: napping and filling their offices with comfort food and other items.

Senator Ben Sasse, Republican from Nebraska, said on the Senate floor that he had closed his eyes for two hours before the fast moods started.

Mrs. Feinstein said she had Mounds bars and soft drinks ready; Minnesota Democrat Senator Tina Smith had her beloved Atomic Fireballs in her purse for easy access; and Pennsylvania Democrat Senator Bob Casey stocked cotton candy and Hot Tamales-flavored Peeps, a product of his home state, for his staff.

Mr Schatz filled his office with extra batteries for his cell phone, a hoodie, drinks “and a little booze,” he said.

Emily Cochrane reporting contributed.

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