With the vote-a-rama in the rearview mirror, it’s worth taking stock of what the 15-plus hours of nonbinding votes on dozens of amendments said about the 2016 presidential election, how vulnerable senators voted and what issues might now come to the fore.
1. Paid sick leave has turned into a potentially potent wedge issue for Democrats. Millions of workers lack any paid sick leave, and the amendment by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that targeted the issue had vulnerable Republicans scrambling on the Senate floor to vote yes. Two of the most vulnerable Republicans, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, actually switched their votes after the fact, providing the 60th and 61st votes, respectively.
Expect Democrats to keep hammering on the issue now that they have crossed the filibuster-proof threshold and offer the amendment again later this Congress, instead of nonbinding, baloney sandwich “deficit neutral reserve funds.” Either Democrats will get a win, or their presidential nominee will have an issue to take to the voters. Presidential candidate Ted Cruz of Texas and the three other potential Republican White House contenders in the Senate — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida — voted no.
2. Most Senate Republicans still don’t support equality for gay people, and some support it only some of the time. The key amendment on March 26 was offered by Democrat Brian Schatz of Hawaii and amounted to a show of support for legally married gay couples collecting Social Security and veterans benefits for spouses. Fifty-seven senators backed it, including 11 Republicans, but it was just shy of the magic 60-number mark.
Democrats were unanimous in support, and the amendment stalled the vote-a-rama for a time as Republicans crowded around the well to figure out how to vote. At one point, a group gathered around Schatz to hear his pitch. Toomey and Jeff Flake of Arizona waited until the last minute to vote no, even though both had voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act when it passed the Senate in 2013 before stalling in the GOP House.
3. Republicans are still playing offense on climate change. An amendment by Roy Blunt of Missouri opposing the creation of a carbon tax got 58 votes, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky got 57 votes for targeting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to withhold state highway funds to enforce climate regulations. The amendments suggest the party still sees Democratic efforts to impose new regulations and taxes on carbon pollution as a big political loser. But they don’t have anywhere close to the 67 votes to override a presidential veto, so don’t expect the West Wing to sweat it.
4. Raising the minimum wage remains almost a solely Democratic priority. The Senate voted 52-48 against an amendment by Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., the ranking member of the Budget Committee, backing an increase to the minimum wage. Just two Republicans joined the Democrats, Rob Portman of Ohio, who is among the most vulnerable senators facing the voters next year, and Susan Collins of Maine. Sen. Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, another vulnerable Republican up in 2016, offered a GOP side-by-side amendment reaffirming states’ rights to set higher minimum wages instead.
5. The parties remain deeply split on taxing the rich. Two amendments fully exposed the split: one by Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, which backed eliminating the estate tax, and one by Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island. Thune’s amendment passed 54-46, with the backing of a single Democrat, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia. Collins was the lone Republican to vote to keep the tax on inherited estates exceeding the $5.43 million exemption.
Some 99.9 percent of estates are too small to pay the tax, but gutting it has long been a Republican priority. The “deficit neutral” reserve fund means Republicans would have to raise taxes on somebody else or cut spending somewhere to pay for the repeal, if they complied with their own nonbinding budget. The Reed amendment, targeting tax breaks for corporate compensation exceeding $1 million, failed 44-54.
6. It’s unanimous: Nobody wants to vote against pregnant workers. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., scored a 100-0 vote for an amendment aimed at preventing employment discrimination against pregnant workers and providing them with a right to workplace accommodations. Expect legislation to follow.
7. Republicans are split on defense spending and the deficit. Rubio’s amendment adding hundreds of billions to defense spending over the next decade drew just 32 votes. Paul’s attempt to add defense spending paid for by cutting international affairs, general science, space and technology, energy, natural resources, social services and income security garnered just four votes, including McConnell.
“We need a strong national defense, but we should be honest with the American people and pay for it,” Paul said on the floor.
8. Most Republican senators apparently don’t think they deserve taxpayer-paid health benefits — or at least they don’t want to vote to save them. Sen. David Vitter’s amendment proposing to nix the health insurance benefit for members of Congress passed, 52-46. The Louisiana Republican had long been seeking a vote, only to have then-Majority Leader Harry Reid pull out the stops to avoid one last year. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who is up in 2016, was the lone Democrat to join Vitter, while three Republicans — Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Dan Coats of Indiana — voted no. Expect more Democrats to repeat the attack line Barbara Boxer of California used on Vitter and ask if those Republicans are going to reimburse the Treasury for their subsidies.
9. The big budget fight comes down to Republicans versus the White House on busting the sequester budget caps. And here, Democrats might have the upper hand. Not only are Republicans split over what to do about defense spending, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia managed to get six crossover Republicans — Collins; Graham; Lamar Alexander of Tennessee; Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who is also up next year; Bob Corker of Tennessee and John McCain of Arizona — to back an amendment calling for an equal increase in defense and non-defense spending accounts paid for by cutting spending or tax breaks elsewhere. It was the last amendment adopted, 50-48. (Two Democrats, Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland and Dianne Feinstein of California, didn’t stick around the chamber for the 3 a.m. vote.)
The president has made equal increases on both domestic and defense sides of the ledger — and higher spending overall — core demands heading into what has become an annual shutdown showdown when the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.
10. Two Republicans aren’t on board with the rest of their party: Paul and Cruz. Both presidential candidates — Paul is expected to announce his campaign on April 7 — voted against the party’s budget.