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Senate Democrats May Face Budget Fire

Senate Democrats have largely avoided politically tricky votes in recent years, but last week’s dueling announcements that they would pursue a budget and give the minority guaranteed amendments on some bills is bound to put vulnerable members on the spot.

A budget on the floor involves an expedited process that allows senators in both parties the chance to offer — and get votes on — an unlimited number of amendments on a cornucopia of subjects. The process requires hours and hours of clerks continuously calling the roll.

“It may be a little bit like throwing some raw meat to a pack of ravenous dogs who haven’t eaten in three years, because it’s been so long since Republicans have had a chance to … offer amendments that they may have a hard time controlling themselves,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said of the budget process.

A budget vote-a-rama hasn’t been seen since the 2010 health care reconciliation bill. The last actual budget resolution with an amendment free-for-all took place on the floor in 2009.

Asked last week whether the vote-a-rama would be making a comeback, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid joked that it would, unless someone could find a way to avoid it. Unfortunately for the Nevada Democrat, there seems to be no way around it if Democrats are serious about taking up a budget resolution, according to longtime Senate aide G. William Hoagland.

A top budget policy aide to former Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and former Budget Chairman Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., Hoagland said that short of changing the budget law, the vote-a-rama is unavoidable.

“The managers can try to enter into a unanimous consent agreement,” Hoagland said, adding that during his time helping senators manage the budget resolution on the floor, “we tried to figure out ways to get that kind of consent early on … so there was basically a time limit before we got to the end.”

Without such an agreement, any senator may offer surprise attack amendments that receive up-or-down votes essentially without debate, as long as the amendments are drafted to comply with the peculiarities of budget law.

Alexander noted that the filibuster rules changes made last week could give GOP senators more chances to offer amendments outside the budget process, potentially making the process more manageable. But a few Democrats have warned that guaranteeing the minority at least two amendment votes in exchange for avoiding some filibusters would invite Republicans to play politics with the process.

The implications of the filibuster changes are yet to be seen, but Hoagland said the budget vote-a-rama has long been considered a “godsend” for campaign strategists and those involved in negative ad campaigns because of the density of politically difficult votes in a narrow period of time. “There are always the gotcha amendments, and it’s too bad, but that’s the way the system works,” Hoagland said.

Despite the pitfalls, the process has become such a part of Senate practice that the chamber’s Historical Office maintains an official list of vote-a-ramas dating to 1977.

During the 2009 budget votes, topics covered a range of the most contentious policy issues of the year. South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint offered an amendment designed to block the use of funds to provide further taxpayer assistance to automakers. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois put forward an amendment designed to make it procedurally more difficult to reduce estate taxes. Vote-a-ramas frequently include votes on issues on a range of social policy, from abortion rights to gun control to immigration.

The 2010 health care vote-a-rama famously included a proposal from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to bar the government from paying for Viagra for sexual predators. Because Democrats were asked to defeat all amendments to the bill, most voted against it. Not long after, the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued press releases with headlines such as: “Patty Murray Votes To Allow Convicted Sex Offenders To Receive Taxpayer-Funded Viagra.”

Murray, a Washington Democrat, happens to be the new Senate Budget chairwoman. She was a leading proponent of doing a budget this year, after three years of Democratic leaders avoiding the process.

Asked about the effect of vote-a-rama on 2014, NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh highlighted the federal debt and criticized Democrats for not having gone through the budget resolution process. “There’s no doubt that they may finally be forced to make some tough votes but it’s made worse by the Democratic majority’s failed leadership and abdication of responsibility in recent years,” he said.

Alexander viewed it as a positive step, and he said he hopes to see appropriations bills move as well. “It’ll be healthy. I mean, if you don’t want to vote, why come to the Senate. Sometimes the vote-a-rama has gotten, toward the end of it, it’s gotten tasteless,” Alexander said. “But basically, I think it’s a healthy thing and I’m looking forward to it.”

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