Shortly before noon Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the procedural moves that set the schedule for the time between now and the Thanksgiving break.
The Nevada Democrat filed a sequence to three cloture motions, setting up votes to end debate on: the third of three pending nominees to vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, a bipartisan drug compounding regulatory bill, and the fiscal 2014 defense programs measure.
Senate Republicans expect the first of the three votes will take place at the usual time of 5:30 p.m. Monday, which means Reid would once again not follow through on a threat for a weekend session. The move would have a benefit for Democrats on the back end, however: the possibility of jamming senators trying to offer contentious amendments to the defense measure up against the holiday break.
Since cloture motions ripen in the order filed, the first vote would be likely to sustain a filibuster on the nomination of Robert L. Wilkins to the powerful D.C. Circuit court. The vast majority of GOP senators opposed the two previous nominees to seats on the same federal bench — Patricia Ann Millett and Nina Pillard — citing caseload and other issues.
That's put the Senate on the brink of yet another partisan dispute about the "nuclear option."
Meanwhile, the Senate is still working through the gears of clearing the bipartisan bill to expand Food and Drug Administration jurisdiction over drug compounding pharmacies.
The legislation is a rare agenda item with overwhelming bipartisan support. It came about in the aftermath of widely publicized deaths from contaminated drugs from compounding pharmacies. The agreement already passed the House, and Senate supporters want to send it to President Barack Obama's desk without any changes.
They're on track to do just that, but first they must work through all of the chamber's procedural obstacles, even though the bill itself is pretty much clear. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has been insisting on consideration of an amendment that would require public reporting of congressional staffers that are shifted into the new health care exchanges under Obamacare (and those that continue to receive standard federal employee benefits).
Open enrollment for members and staff on the DC Health Link exchange began this week.
"Whatever we think about the underlying issues — and I know there's disagreement — to me it should be a no-brainer that there is full disclosure about how each individual office handles the situation. That is not fully disclosed now," Vitter said Wednesday. "Some members may choose to say it to the press, to answer press questions, but it is not public information. It seems clear to me that ... how each elected member elects to handle that situation should be, by definition, public information, fully disclosed."
His current request for a vote is on an amendment well short of a broader amendment, which would bar employer contribution payments to staffers and members on the exchange. Senators in both parties have made clear that Vitter is the only obstacle to expediting the compounding bill.
Whenever Reid and Vitter agree on speeding up passage of the pharmacy bill (or the chamber burns through all of the allotted debate time), the next vote would be to limit debate on the defense authorization. That measure looks likely to be the venue for several foreign affairs questions, ranging from Iran sanctions to the military prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
That's in addition to a contentious debate over the best way to investigate and prosecute sexual assault in the military.
The closer to Thanksgiving week the Senate gets, however, the more pressure senators may face to defer offering amendments, or for Reid to push final action of the measure until after Thanksgiving. Reid has said the chamber could take a two-week break this year.