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Are the Senate Budget Rules Working?

As senators tackled their first budget vote-a-rama since 2009, opinions were decidedly mixed as to whether the budget law dictating abbreviated debate followed by unlimited amendment votes should be revamped.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he had no problem with the process, noting that the minority’s ability to offer amendments is often restricted.

“There’s nothing wrong with this process,” Coburn said in an interview on CSPAN’s “Newsmakers” taped Friday. “It’s the only time in the Senate where your minority rights are truly protected to where you can offer an amendment with a 51-vote threshold.

“Are there political games being played? Yes, there always will be,” Coburn continued. He filed more than 50 amendments as the vote-a-rama dragged into Friday night.

There are plenty of opportunities for senators to score political wins on their proposals, even though budgets do not have the force of law.

Republican Sen. John Hoeven posted one of the biggest symbolic victories during his first experience with the budget proceedings, getting a filibuster-proof majority — 62 senators, including 17 Democrats — on record in support of construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.

“We’ve established clearly the president needs to make a decision, it needs to be an affirmative decision because the support is here to approve it if he doesn’t,” Hoeven told reporters. He was still the governor of North Dakota the last time the Senate went through this exercise.

But as for the hours upon hours of voting, “obviously, there’s better ways to do it,” Hoeven said. “Except this is an opportunity for people to put up their amendments, and as you can see, there’s a great desire to vote on more amendments and we should be.”

He added, “I think what you see going on here is some of this pent-up desire to get these amendments to the floor and vote on them.”

Hoeven, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he was hopeful that new committee leadership would push to bring more spending bills to the floor while allowing amendments. Under regular order, senators debating appropriations bills could offer more substantive versions of their non-binding budget amendments.

Under budget law, debate on the floor enjoys an expedited process that allows all senators to offer, and get votes on, an unlimited number of amendments on a cornucopia of subjects, and the hours and hours of clerks continuously calling the roll was on display Friday night.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also a member of the Appropriations Committee, agreed with Coburn.

“It’s better than nothing, which is what we’ve had for four years,” she said, an oft-used GOP criticism about Senate Democrats’ decision to forego a budget resolution for the past three years.

“Its overdue, we need to be talking about a budget,” Murkowski said.

The appropriations process is also spelled out in the budget law, which appropriators may be reluctant to change for fear of losing jurisdiction.

“You will have people say, ‘Look I brought this up on the budget resolution, I got 74 votes for it, it’s clear that there is momentum, I think it’s time to move it,’” Murkowski said. “I think it does act as something that can give signals, something that can give a level of support out there. So I think it’s good.”

As with the pipeline, the Senate gave overwhelming support for an amendment that mimicked a bill that would allow states to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases. That measure received 75 “yes” votes, enough to override a presidential veto.

Steven S. Smith, a Senate procedural scholar at Washington University in St. Louis, said the process is adequate, but limits on amendments could improve it.

“The Budget Act’s limit on debate allows a majority to act in exchange for an open-ended amendment process,” Smith said. “Some reasonable limits on the number of amendments may be desirable to allow a majority to act, but, on balance, this seems better than the regular order in the Senate, which is seldom regular.”

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of Republican Conference, said he thinks it’s not an effective process and should be reformed.

“We need budget process reform desperately,” Thune said. “It would be nice in the context of what we are doing here [that] we would do something about that.”

Thune called the budget rules “completely antiquated” and pointed to growing support for a biennial budget, which has been pushed recently by Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

“Biennial budgeting gives us a better, more responsible way to address our debt and deficits by making our budget process smarter and more efficient,” Shaheen said in a statement after a Friday test vote on their proposal demonstrated the support of 68 senators.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., both voted in favor of the amendment, while Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., were among those voting against it.

Reid recently said the idea deserved consideration by the Senate.

Richard Arenberg, who served in senior congressional staff positions for 34 years as an aide to Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, and Sens. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., also doesn’t think it’s a useful process.

In “Defending the Filibuster,” a recent book by Arenberg and former Senate Parliamentarian Robert Dove, the authors “call for the Senate to address the ‘vote-a-rama’ so that amendments can be seriously considered and voted upon. The current spectacle demeans the Senate’s process of debate and consideration,” Arenberg said.