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Senate GOP laying amendment traps for budget debate

‘Vote-a-rama’ mostly for messaging purposes, but could drag out into the wee hours of Friday morning

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., speaks Feb. 3 during the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions confirmation hearing for Education secretary nominee Miguel Cardona.
Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., speaks Feb. 3 during the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions confirmation hearing for Education secretary nominee Miguel Cardona. (Susan Walsh/AP/Pool)

Senate Republicans began arming themselves with a slew of amendments Wednesday to slow down work on a budget resolution that Democrats need to produce a filibuster-free pandemic relief package.

Laying the groundwork for a prolonged “vote-a-rama” on the Senate floor this week, Republicans filed over 400 amendments by Wednesday evening as they protested a Democratic decision to use the budget reconciliation process to skirt GOP opposition.

“Senate Republicans will be ready and waiting with a host of amendments to improve the rushed procedural step that’s being jammed through,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in floor remarks earlier in the day.

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“We’ll be getting senators on the record about whether taxpayers should fund checks for illegal immigrants; whether Democrats should raise taxes on small businesses in the midst of this historic crisis; and whether generous federal funding should pour into school districts where the unions refuse to let school open,” McConnell said. “And this is just a small taste.”

Minimum wage, school reopenings

Between them, freshman GOP Sens. Roger Marshall of Kansas, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama had filed 69 amendments to the Democrats’ budget resolution as of Wednesday evening.

Florida’s Rick Scott was the individual amendment champion thus far, proposing 38 of his own. North Dakota’s John Hoeven and Utah’s Mike Lee weren’t far behind, at 28 and 27 amendments filed, respectively. Scott’s fellow Floridian, Marco Rubio, had proposed 23.

Many of the amendments are in the form of “deficit neutral reserve funds” that enable backers to express a policy preference and move numbers around in the budget blueprint to accommodate future legislation. For example, one Hagerty amendment is to establish such a fund “related to supporting the scientifically based reopening of public schools immediately.”

Others would establish new “points of order” against certain legislation that would take 60 votes to waive. Some could put centrist Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III on the spot, like a Marshall amendment to create a point of order against “legislation that would result in job loss in the oil and gas industry.”

And Jim Risch, R-Idaho, has a point of order against legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, which Democratic leaders and the White House are pushing in the virus aid package. Manchin said Tuesday that he doesn’t support Democrats’ proposal, although he said something like $11 an hour may be acceptable.

Germaneness rules for the budget resolution could result in many of the GOP amendments being ruled out of order, which would take 60 votes to waive. Therefore, a lot of messaging amendments won’t be adopted but could give some Democrats in red-leaning states an opportunity to go on record supporting something their leadership opposes.

And most of the amendments that end up being filed won’t even be considered on the floor during the vote-a-rama, which Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he expected to start around 2:30 p.m. on Thursday. But the event is nonetheless shaping up to be an endurance test for an aging Senate.

In 2015 and 2013, when there were 43 roll call votes each during budget vote-a-ramas, the chamber didn’t adjourn until the following morning at 4:23 a.m. and 5:22 a.m., respectively, according to Senate records. One hopeful sign may be that in 2008, during a 44-vote marathon, the chamber wrapped up at just 2:36 a.m.

The Republican amendment volley is the latest salvo in a partisan clash over President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that Democrats want to pass within weeks.

The first step is adopting the budget blueprint; the House adopted its own, almost identical version Wednesday on a 218-212 vote. But for procedural reasons the chamber would need to vote again on the Senate adopted-version, assuming that occurs after that chamber’s vote-a-rama wraps up.

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said his chamber could vote again as soon as Friday after the Senate version comes over, although earlier in the day House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters it was possible final action could slip into the weekend.

House committees want to get the budget resolution out of the way so they can get to work on the reconciliation package next week, and then send it to the floor of that chamber the last week of February.

‘No scientific basis’

Republicans say the aid proposal is too costly, poorly targeted to those in need and contains objectionable policy prescriptions that are unrelated to the pandemic.

In his floor remarks, McConnell took aim at Democratic plans to spend about $170 billion to help schools reopen safely during the pandemic. He said school districts had spent only $4 billion of the $68 billion already set aside for K-12 schools.

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain “keeps saying we need even more massive federal funding before teachers can go back,” McConnell said. “There is no scientific basis for that. None whatsoever.”

Biden, in a call with House Democrats on Wednesday, said he was open to bipartisan compromise but determined to push ahead with a large aid package, according to a source familiar with the conversation. “We need to act fast,” Biden said. “We need to restore the soul of the country.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Democratic committee leaders charged with drafting the aid legislation met with Biden at the White House on Wednesday morning to map strategy.

During the meeting, Biden predicted that ultimately there would be some bipartisan support for the aid package. “I think we’ll get some Republicans,” Biden said at the top of the meeting, before reporters were kicked out.

After the meeting, Schumer made clear that his party was unified around going it alone if necessary, however. “There’s agreement, universal agreement we must go big and bold,” he said. “We want to do it bipartisan, but we must be strong. We cannot dawdle, we cannot delay, we cannot dilute, because the troubles that this nation has and the opportunities that we can bring them are so large.”

A group of 10 Republican senators proposed an alternative aid package of $618 billion that the White House dismissed as inadequate. Biden told Democrats on his call that the greater risk is settling on a package that is “too small” to meet the needs of a struggling economy.

“Let’s not get hung up on budgets and [Congressional Budget Office] scores,” Biden said, according to the source familiar with the call. One person on the call said Biden left some wiggle room on the overall $1.9 trillion price tag, however, suggesting it could go a little lower but nowhere near what Republicans have offered.

The president also made clear that he is still open to negotiating the finer points of his plan. Republicans, for example, have criticized Biden’s proposed tax rebate checks of up to $1,400 per individual, saying some of the money would go to relatively well-off families who don’t need it.

Republicans offered an alternative that would cap the maximum payment at $1,000 and restrict it to those making no more than $50,000 a year as a single filer and $100,000 for joint filers. Dependents would receive just $500, as opposed to the full $1,400 amount in Biden’s plan.

In Biden’s proposal, the $1,400 figure would start to phase out above $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for married couples. But because the per-person amounts are so large, more well-off families with multiple kids could still receive generous checks.

Biden said he was committed to his promise of $1,400 payments but would consider changing the income thresholds.

“We can better target the number; I’m OK with that,” Biden said on his call with House Democrats. But he added: “I’m not going to start my administration by breaking a promise to people.”

Niels Lesniewski, Jennifer Shutt and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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