Senate ‘vote-a-Rama’ lasts all night with Democrats’ agenda at stake

WASHINGTON — Cloudy-eyed Senator Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat who brokered the climate, health and tax accord that was on track to pass within hours, sat quietly at his desk in the Senate Chamber around midnight Saturday, staring blankly into the middle distance as he munched on M&Ms.

A triumph was almost within reach over an important item on the Democrats’ national agenda – but first, Mr. Manchin and his colleagues would have to have an all-nighter, fueled by junk food and caffeine, perhaps alcohol and lots of politically charged speeches. , as they debated and voted on a rapid series of non-binding amendments.

The vote-a-rama (yes, it’s actually called that), a familiar but reviled ritual for the octogenarians and elders who make up the Senate, began late Saturday night and stretched into Sunday morning . It was a last chance for Republicans to try to derail the Democrats’ top legislative priority — or at least launch political attacks on them on the way to its passage — and a test of Democratic resolve to preserve their delicate compromise.

It was also the ultimate manifestation of senatorial weirdness and dysfunction – a time-consuming exercise that has little impact on politics but keeps senators up all night, only ending when they run out of steam to propose more amendments. They were still there mid-morning Sunday after about 12 p.m., with no clear indication of when they would finish.

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

The vote-a-rama is part of the mysterious process known as reconciliation that Democrats are using to fast-track their sweeping climate, energy and fiscal agenda through Congress. It shields certain budget-related laws from a filibuster, allowing him to pass by a simple majority rather than the normal 60 votes needed to avoid a Republican filibuster.

But it also allows any senator to offer any proposal to change the law when it reaches the floor. This gives rise to all sorts of political posturing – in this case, just months before the midterm elections.

In anticipation of the theater performances, senators filled their offices with blankets, snacks and energy drinks. Containers of take-out food could be spotted in the halls of the Capitol on Saturday evening. At 8 a.m. Sunday, more than eight hours into the day, senators reclined in their chairs and Sen. Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, let out a yawn and rubbed his eyes.

It was the fourth vote-a-rama for the current Congress, with previous episodes each drawing around 40 votes. This time, as in the past, Democrats stood together to fend off Republican efforts to torpedo their bill, rejecting amendments along party lines.

They included an attempt to cut funding for the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. Republican senators also tried unsuccessfully to add oil and gas lease sales in some states.

In a bid to press Democrats on a politically powerful issue, Republicans forced a vote removing a tax on gas and energy companies, which they say could plunge the country into a recession and raise prices at the pump.

Republicans succeeded in making a change to the bill, removing a provision that would have capped insulin prices at $35 per month. Democrats left it in the legislation even amid fears it would violate reconciliation rules, effectively daring Republicans to demand the removal of a popular measure and formally vote to do so. (The action left the cap intact for Medicare patients, millions of whom have diabetes and could still benefit.)

Members of the Democratic caucus have also used the process to make political points. Senator Bernie Sanders, 80, an independent from Vermont and chairman of the Budget Committee, offered several proposals throughout the night to express his disappointment with the reduction of the bill.

“This could actually be the very last time in a long time that people will have the opportunity to vote” on progressive issues, Mr. Sanders said Sunday morning around 8:30 a.m., his eyes bloodshot after a sleepless night.

But Democrats were determined to resist the temptation to change the legislation even slightly, fearing they would lose their caucus’ unanimous support for a flimsy compromise.

“This one is so delicately balanced that ANY amendment, even a ‘good’ one, risks upsetting the balance – so expect a lot of ‘no’ votes on things we would normally want,” Senator Sheldon said. Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island. , explained in a Twitter post.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has 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 Senate 50-50, Democrats could not afford a single disease that could rob them of their majority.

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

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

Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, wondered aloud if Democrats could have chosen not to test Covid to avoid jeopardizing their bill, saying doing so for the voting marathon could jeopardize danger “not just to each other, but to the staff, Capitol police, custodial staff, food service workers, and countless others who keep this institution running.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, 89, said she was not particularly worried as she planned to wear a mask and take the necessary precautions. She added that she had carried out tests before the weekend.

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

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

Still, business continued as usual with mostly unmasked lawmakers huddled on the Senate floor instead of isolated in their personal offices, as many did during votes-a-ramas the last year.

The vote-a-rama brought Sen. Patrick Leahy, 82, a Vermont Democrat, back to the Capitol for the first time since his hip surgery last month. An aide escorted the senator, who is acting president, through the Capitol in a Batman-themed wheelchair.

Senators prepared for the long evening as they normally did for vote-a-rama: naps and stuffing their desks with comfort food and other items.

Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, said the Senate floor that he had closed his eyes for two hours before the start of the polls.

Ms Feinstein said she made Mounds bars and soft drinks; Senator Tina Smith, Democrat of Minnesota, had her beloved atomic fireballs in her purse for easy access; and Sen. Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, stockpiled cotton candy-flavored peeps and Hot Tamales, a product of his home state, for the enjoyment of his staff.

Mr. Schatz stocked his desk with extra batteries for his cellphone, a hoodie, drinks “and a little alcohol,” he said.

Emily Cochrane contributed report.