Senators aren't making law as they complete work on the budget resolution, but for those facing the voters in 2016, the affair is riddled with political landmines, often set deliberately by the other party.
Of the 34 senators up for re-election in 2016, 24 are Republicans, several in highly competitive swing states. Just two Democratic incumbents are running in competitive states. Democrats need a net gain of five seats to secure the majority.
And while this week's votes might not matter much eventually, there could be short-term heartburn for vulnerable incumbents, as well as for jockeying among the senators looking to run for president.
Members' Salaries — Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has filed an amendment that would tie members' salaries to the sequester.
"One of 'em you’re gonna like," Graham said when asked about his amendment plans. "Making our pay subject to sequestration." (Never mind the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids varying the pay of Congress before an intervening election.)
Graham is considering a bid for president, and this amendment might be targeted at some of his potential opponents: Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; and Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Women's Health — Democrats have relentlessly attacked Republicans on women’s health issues over the past two election cycles, sometimes to great effect (see: Bennet, Michael), and sometimes not (see: Udall, Mark). This cycle will be no different, and Democrats hope to get Republicans on the record opposing an amendment to create a budget point of order for anything that would increase the cost of contraceptives.
Senators already cast votes on a pair of competing proposals related to equal pay for women in the workforce, with the GOP using a side-by-side amendment in response to an equal-pay offering from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md. The method is popular because it allows everyone to vote "yes" for something.
Health Care — Both sides have amendments on health care ready to go, but the line of demarcation — Obamacare — is so bright that the votes themselves might not yield much suspense.
Democrats could try to strip out the reconciliation instructions that allow for repeal and a hypothetical replacement, but Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut said the contrast is already obvious enough.
"I'm sure there will be amendments ... related to health care, but we don't need an amendment strategy to expose Republicans' hypocrisy on health care. You know, they say they are for protecting people with pre-existing but still haven't offered an alternative to the Affordable Care Act that does it," Murphy said. "I think they've done a pretty good job themselves in putting themselves in a pretzel on health care."
Sen. David Vitter has filed what might be among the most contentious amendments of all. The Louisiana Republican, who is running for governor of his home state, intends to seek a vote on a proposal expressing opposition to what he's long protested as an exemption for members of Congress from Obamacare. Expect to see this among the litany of Obamacare-related attacks leveled by Republicans — if Democrats support the law, why are they protecting a carve-out enabling them to keep getting taxpayer-subsidized health insurance?
Defense Budget — In 2014, concerns about national security boosted Republicans in the final weeks of the elections, in particular, the perception that Democrats had been inattentive to the growing threat of the Islamic State terror group. In North Carolina, attacks on that topic helped now-Sen. Thom Tillis build the momentum to win. An amendment from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would effectively nullify a future point of order against $96 billion in war spending. Republicans could use the vote to suggest Democrats are not sufficiently concerned about national security, but it could also pose a dilemma for some Republicans like Paul, who often prioritize spending concerns.
Taxes — Democrats would love to get Republicans on the record voting against an amendment that would boost middle-class tax cuts or the earned income credit, paid for with higher taxes on people in the wealthiest tax brackets. If they do, Democrats will reprise a 2014 attack line: Republicans care more about the wealthy and business interests than they do about the middle class.
Climate — Sen. Roy Blunt has filed several energy-related amendments, including one designed to support a Senate role in approving climate agreements negotiated by the executive branch.
“The Obama administration’s unilateral climate agreement with China could stifle our nation’s job creation and increase energy costs for consumers while China enjoys the limitless ability to grow its economy,” Blunt said in a statement. “This amendment will keep the administration’s overreach in check and protect families and young people in Missouri and across the nation from being forced to pay higher utility bills they can’t afford.”
There could be many more to come. Some senators have been known to deliberately wait to file trap votes until shortly before the voting starts, giving other senators little time to prepare. Cruz, who announced he is running for president earlier this week, was keeping his legislative powder dry as of Wednesday afternoon.
He could use the vote-a-rama to help highlight his conservative credentials as he kicks off his campaign, or simply to cause problems for some of his potential opponents, particularly Paul, who is vying for the same conservative mantle as Cruz.
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