An outsider looking at the Senate floor on C-SPAN 2 on Tuesday had a good chance to see one of the seemingly endless quorum calls that have become the chamber’s calling card in recent years. Senators spoke on the floor at various points throughout the day, but the quorum calls provided regular interludes.
What made Tuesday stand out, however, is that Senate leaders agreed less than two months ago to a filibuster rules deal that was intended to prevent such time-wasting endeavors.
Though the Senate has already voted to limit debate time on the stopgap spending bill currently up for debate, some GOP senators have objected to waiving the requisite 30 hours of additional debate in an attempt to get the chamber to vote on their amendments.
It’s not supposed to happen this way. When the Senate adopted the formal rules changes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also entered into a handshake agreement on how to deal with such empty blocks of floor time. The leaders agreed that in those instances they would force senators to the floor to produce a live quorum and debate the objections or issues at hand.
But so far that hasn’t happened, despite threats from some senators to hold up the bill for the rest of the week. If no agreement is reached and all time for debate on both the Senate substitute language and the underlying bill gets used up, then the Senate would have to wait until Thursday to pass the continuing resolution to keep the government funded through September.
Under the Reid-McConnell agreement, further quorum call requests could be ruled dilatory post-cloture, which, in theory, would make it easier to burn through the debate time without having to exhaust the entire 30 hours.
Democratic leadership aides did not immediately respond to requests for comment on why the new process is not being used.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Reid remained hopeful that a deal on the continuing resolution could be reached to provide a quick getaway before Passover and Easter, acknowledging that many of his past threats of Friday and weekend sessions have evaporated thanks to late agreements.
“I, a lot of times, say we’re going to have to be here on Friday, and we get things through on Thursday. And that can happen again,” Reid said. “But we are going to finish the CR, and we’re going to finish the budget before we leave here for the Easter break. That is for sure.”
Of course, the budget resolution, by law, gets 50 hours debate on the floor, and Senators are given the opportunity to offer unlimited amendments on a myriad of subjects thereafter. While the Senate also could reach a unanimous consent agreement to curtail that, Senate Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions said that wasn’t in the cards.
The Alabama Republican suggested that the debate be put off until the week after the two-week recess for Easter and Passover, but Democrats have no intention of doing that.
“Because of this delay [on the CR], now we get to wait and watch the time run out until Thursday night, and we will be here Friday, Saturday and Sunday doing this debate,” said Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.
On the spending bill, the Senate voted Monday evening to overcome procedural hurdles after an amendment agreement floated by Reid ran into multiple objections from GOP senators seeking votes on amendments not included in the deal.
On the CR, Democrats have to contend with two 30-hour debate clocks. The first one on a Senate substitute amendment will expire Wednesday morning. The second one on the bill itself would start after that, though in an agreement that represents a bit of Senate magic, it will act as though it began at 1 a.m. Wednesday. Absent an agreement or the use of any new procedural tools, senators and their staffs have a long week ahead.