WASHINGTON – After a 15-hour stretch that kept lawmakers on the Senate floor until the wee hours of Friday morning, Democrats moved one step closer to passing President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue plan.
Yet most of the night – a marathon process known a “vote-a-rama” – had little to do with negotiating the makeup of the actual coronavirus relief package. By Thursday, Republicans had filed almost 900 budget amendments on anything from “developing technology to counter unmanned aircraft” to streamlining “permits for production of rare earth elements.”
And among the roughly 45 amendments that were actually considered, the handful that passed also at times strayed from the pandemic response. Even amendments that were adopted would not have had the force of law. But they could still resurface in future political ads.
One amendment, for instance, aimed to ensure the U.S. Embassy in Israel remains in Jerusalem. Another would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from banning fracking.
The lengthy vote that dragged lawmakers, Congressional aides and journalists into an all-night C-SPAN watch party was unusual in and of itself. “Vote-a-ramas” don’t happen every year. The late-night Senate tradition also brought Vice President Kamala Harris to the Senate floor to cast her first tiebreaking vote before the rest of Washington was even awake.
The chaotic process ended with the Senate passing a budget resolution and moved the “budget reconciliation” process forward. Senate Democrats opened the process so they could pass Biden’s stimulus package in coming weeks with a simple-majority vote, instead of the 60 votes typically required.
As most Americans on the east coast were likely getting ready for bed Thursday evening, senators spent 25 minutes debating and voting on an amendment to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from banning fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting oil and gas that has increased U.S. fossil fuel production while contributing to drinking water contamination, methane leaks and more frequent earthquakes.
Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., who proposed the amendment, argued that fracking had helped the U.S. achieve energy independence and boosted the economy. Braun acknowledged in his remarks that Biden has promised not to ban fracking.
Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., spoke against the bill, pointing out that Biden does not support a blanket ban on fracking, and arguing that Braun’s amendment would prevent the federal government from regulating fracking emissions. The amendment passed by a vote of 57-43, but in the end was stripped out of the resolution by Democrats.
One of the first amendments offered, by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., sought to block funding for schools that have not reopened for in-person learning once teachers had been vaccinated. It failed on a party-line vote.
Another amendment by Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., aimed at ensuring state and local jurisdictions cooperate with federal law enforcement authorities also failed along party lines. Democrats blocked an amendment by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., aimed at opposing packing the Supreme Court, and one from Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., that sought to block stimulus checks from going to inmates.
Two Democrats – Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana – joined with Republicans to approve an amendment by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., aimed at overturning Biden’s move to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. But then hours later, the Democrats changed their votes and opposed the measure, which didn’t make the final budget resolution.
There was some bipartisanship on display on other votes, notably the 99-1 approval of the amendment by Manchin and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to ensure than “upper-income” taxpayers do not get stimulus payments.
About an hour later, around 11 p.m., Republican Sens. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee rose to introduce an amendment requiring the U.S. Embassy in Israel to remain in Jerusalem. The Trump administration moved the embassy there from Tel Aviv in 2018, and while Biden criticized the move during his presidential campaign, his top diplomat, Antony Blinken, has already said he would not reverse it.
No one spoke against the amendment, and it passed 97-3, with just Democratic Sens. Carper, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders voting against it. All the same, the vote ate up some 20 minutes of senators’ time.
The night had other fits of tension and drama. Most of the clock was taken up by lengthy roll call votes. And in turn, antsy Senators tried to move the proceedings along by shushing side conversations and asking lawmakers, repeatedly, to stay in their seats. At one point, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, admonished Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for not wear a mask.
Harris was brought in to cast her first tiebreaking vote just around 5:15 a.m. for an amendment put forward by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Harris’ second tiebreaker vote came shortly after at around 5:30, securing the budget bill’s passage 51-50.
For 15 hours, the Senate floor had been abuzz with lawmakers offering up their own remarks on the history of the occasion, the crises facing the country and the occasional reprimand.
But with the vote-a-rama now complete, the chamber emptied out with time to spare before the Friday morning sunrise.
– – –
The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein and Erica Werner contributed to this report