Start Preparing Now for the Budget Vote-A-Rama

Moran, pictured here with the GOP freshman class, said budget "gotcha" votes don't really exist. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Moran, pictured here with the GOP freshman class, said budget "gotcha" votes don't really exist. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted March 17, 2015 at 5:00am

This night is not like all other nights.  

A chance for unlimited amendments and votes in the Senate chamber only comes along once a year — at most. For the baker’s dozen of freshman senators, the so-called budget vote-a-rama they’ll endure toward the end of next week will be unlike anything else they will experience.  

The advice from the veterans is rather simple: “Get a good night’s sleep, drink a lot of liquids, be patient, bring a good book.”  

That’s the wisdom South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham offered when asked last week how freshmen should prepare for the potential all-nighter.  

The process involves dozens upon dozens of roll call votes on amendments to the budget resolution, with senators seeking proxy votes on all sorts of legislative priorities, as well as trying to put their counterparts across the aisle into some odd political boxes.  

The votes are all nonbinding, as is the budget resolution itself — it is not a law and doesn’t go to the president’s desk. But it does set up the rest of the year’s legislating.  

And senators up for re-election or contemplating the 2016 race for the White House had better be present.  

The Senate last went through this routine in 2013, when the then-Democratic-led chamber dealt with about 100 amendments over some 13 hours of voting, bringing the process to a close shortly before the sun rose over the nation’s capital.  

“It is a bad day to miss votes because we usually have 40, 50, 60, 70 or more votes on that day. I’m not sure that we really make good policy or even comment on, convincingly on policy, but it’s one of the few days where almost any idea can be tested,” Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said.  

In 2013, for example, Republicans succeeded in showing overwhelming support for repealing the medical device tax in Obamacare with a budget resolution amendment. (Two years later, the tax remains in place.)  

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said it can be easy to make mistakes during the process, and he emphasized the importance of seeking out guidance from fellow lawmakers, as well as the committee, floor and cloakroom staff, for new senators.  

“There’s enough of us there to help them out,” Heller said. “Don’t be afraid to ask.”  

Durbin, in response to a question, said it would be “a pretty cynical view of the Senate” to think his caucus would be lining up “gotcha” amendments now that Democrats are in the minority.  

But while the numerous votes could offer the opportunity to set up 30-second attack ads down the line, Kansas Republican Jerry Moran, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2014 cycle, doubted they’ll have much impact.  

“I don’t think there really is such a thing as a ‘gotcha’ vote. It appears that way maybe, at the moment. But the reality is that United States senators can explain their votes,” Moran said. “I think the point is that you can be attacked however you vote, and it will be portrayed as something, and your job is to explain your position.”  

Sometimes a pattern of voting can develop through the course of the vote-a-rama, said Sen. Jeff Sessions, a former ranking member on the Budget Committee. The Alabama Republican indicated that might be the case with immigration, a topic on which he’s likely to offer a number of amendments.  

“We cast a lot of votes, and but seldom does one become a campaign issue. Now, if you’ve cast a half-a-dozen votes to, let’s say, protect the right of illegal aliens to have an Earned Income Tax or Child Tax credit that’s illegal and they shouldn’t get it?” Sessions said. “I think it could add strength to somebody’s attack — give validity to it when you have this vote, this vote and this vote.”  

The 2016 presidential race is sure to bring a different dynamic to things, as several GOP senators have already begun making campaign-like maneuvers, staffing up their political operations and making trips to places such as Iowa and New Hampshire.  

The rules that govern taking up the budget resolution on the Senate floor give senators the opportunity to offer unlimited amendments, so the presidential prospects can get votes on as many ideas as they want to appeal to activists, the party base and perhaps even some wealthy donors whose cash they covet.  

Democrats know this too; under the microscope of a nascent presidential campaign, any one of the dozens of policy-related budget votes they offer might get extra attention if they happen to cause fissures between the expected 2016 field.  

And it is not just the prospective Republican field.  

Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., happens to be the ranking member of the Democratic Conference on the Budget Committee. Sanders and fellow members of the panel’s minority told reporters last week they would not draft a complete budget alternative — unlike House Democrats.  

“It takes an enormous amount of work to put together a budget , and that you have to do when you’re in the majority,” Sanders said.  

Instead, he said, expect “very strong” amendments outlining Democratic priorities.  

“In essence, what the debate over this budget will be about is whether or not we produce a document that works for a struggling middle class, or whether or not we will provide a budget that makes the wealthiest people and largest corporations even wealthier and better off than they are today,” he said.  

The 114th: CQ Roll Call’s Guide to the New Congress

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.