Senate mired in ‘vote-a-rama’ ahead of huddle between Biden and Democrats

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The Senate slow-walked its way through a marathon voting session late Thursday night, with Republicans forcing Democrats into tedious and uncomfortable votes on a variety of issues as Democrats inflicted maximum pain by dragging out the legislative torment.

The potential all-nighter in the upper chamber comes as President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are set to meet with House Democratic leaders and committee chairs on Friday morning to discuss Biden’s pandemic aid plan. The House could take up the Senate’s amended budget resolution as soon as Friday.

The endurance run known as the “vote-a-rama” is a time-honored tradition of the reconciliation process — the budget tool Democrats will likely use to expedite passage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan without any GOP support.

But before Senate Democrats can advance that massive package, they must first pass a budget resolution to unleash reconciliation, the process allowing them to evade the legislative filibuster. Any senator can offer an amendment to the budget measure as part of the vote-a-rama, which could stretch into Friday morning.

As of Thursday, about 700 amendments to the Senate’s budget resolution had been filed between both parties, spanning issues like raising the minimum wage, abortion rights, fracking, reopening schools and hiking taxes during the pandemic.

“I think the game in here right now is that if the Republicans will tell us what the finite remaining list is, then we’ll start doing faster votes,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “We’re gonna do slow votes until they tell us and we’ll do fast votes once they have told us.”

Despite the partisan pinch, the first several hours yielded several bipartisan bright spots, offering some insight into how Congress and the White House might approach the upcoming coronavirus relief package.

Nearly every senator approved what’s essentially a messaging amendment aimed at ensuring $1,400 stimulus checks don’t go to “upper-income taxpayers.” That effort is led by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), who have been pushing for Democrats to craft the president’s stimulus proposal with bipartisan buy-in.

Democrats and Republicans also joined together to approve amendments focused on ensuring that undocumented immigrants don’t receive stimulus checks, in addition to measures aimed at helping restaurants during the pandemic, raising public awareness about vaccine administration, helping rural hospitals, and not hiking taxes on small businesses during the health crisis.

Signs of the long night ahead cropped up early. Kaine said his office is running a “betting pool” on how many amendments might ultimately get a vote. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) was spotted carrying a grocery bag filled with various kinds of potato chips and what appeared to be energy drinks.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced on the floor that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had cast her 9,000th vote.

Tensions briefly flared when Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) laid into Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on the floor for refusing to wear a mask. Paul, who previously tested positive for coronavirus, has since claimed that he’s immune to the virus.

Within the first few hours, Democrats defeated amendments that would prevent coronavirus relief funds from flowing to schools that refuse to open even after teachers are vaccinated, in addition to an amendment that would reduce funding for states that have an active investigation into nursing homes for underreported deaths.

While the votes kept rolling, 10 Senate Republicans sent a letter to Biden asking for additional details on his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package and voicing concern that the proposal isn’t sufficiently targeted.

“It’s generally a free-for-all once you get into vote-a-rama,” said Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), suggesting that members may end up on cots at some point. “It just depends on the appetite for members to do this.”

“I think the Democrats chose this path, and obviously it’s not going to be an easy path,” he said. “When you go this route, you’re asking basically the other side to sort of lay down and say we’re going to run over you. And I think our members are ready to force some votes on some pretty tough amendments.”

Asked how late the amendment mayhem might go, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, “I don’t know. Usually we just keep talking until everyone collapses.” He later speculated that the ordeal might last until at least 2 a.m.

The record for vote-a-rama amendment votes was 44 in 2008.

Among the hundreds of GOP amendments on deck, Republicans are eager to squeeze Democrats on a $15 minimum wage hike, a key tenet of Biden’s stimulus plan that could run afoul of so called Byrd Rule restrictions on what can be included in reconciliation legislation. Manchin already split with his party this week on the issue.

Before the vote, Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) filed an amendment that aims to block a minimum wage hike from being implemented during the pandemic. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) also filed a provision that would provide economic assistance to workers in industries like hospitality and child care, with language suggesting those workers have been laid off as a result of minimum wage increases.

In arguing against raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour, GOP lawmakers point to the closure of grocery stores this month that faced local mandates to provide $4 raises to employees during the pandemic.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during her weekly press conference on Thursday that Democrats can always pursue other avenues to hike the minimum wage if a boost is ultimately left out of Biden’s coronavirus relief package.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office outlined five major GOP priorities heading into the protracted legislative ordeal — including putting Democrats on the record about whether illegal immigrants should receive stimulus checks and whether taxes should be increased on businesses during the pandemic.

“We’re going to put senators on the record,” McConnell said on the floor Thursday. “We’ll see how our colleagues vote on these basic, commonsense steps.”

Marianne LeVine and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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