Senate Democrats are considering skipping a budget resolution for the fourth time in the past five years — a move that would insulate their vulnerable members from a politically charged "vote-a-rama."
“We haven’t decided,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Budget Committee, when asked recently about the prospects of the Senate passing a fiscal 2015 budget resolution, which would game out spending and revenues over the next five years to 10 years. “Everybody’s going to take a deep breath and we’ll make a determination.”
Although called for by law, budget resolutions themselves are nonbinding, with little import in most years beyond setting top-line spending levels for appropriators. And the bipartisan budget deal in December negotiated by Murray and House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., already sets those spending levels for next year, making a budget resolution all but moot.
Murray, who noted that Democrats passed a budget resolution last year — the first since 2009 — pre-emptively dismissed any potential criticism from Republicans if they choose to skip it this year.
“We just passed a budget for two years and we worked a budget through last year,” Murray said. “Whatever we do, there will be criticism, but we’ll make a decision based on what is the right thing to do.”
House Republicans could seek to force the matter by demanding the Senate pass a resolution as a condition for raising the debt ceiling, something that helped get it done last year. But it's unclear if they will.
The current scenario is similar to when Congress passed the Budget Control Act in 2011, which set the top-line spending levels for the following fiscal year. Senate Democrats skipped a budget resolution, arguing that the BCA was sufficient.
Republicans lashed out at Democrats, accusing them of failing to take on a fundamental aspect of governing. But Democratic aides believed arguments over the budget process would not resonate with voters in 2012, which appeared to be the case as President Barack Obama was re-elected and the Senate remained under the control of Democrats.
The main reason Democrats would want to forgo a budget resolution is the vote-a-rama — a rare moment for Republicans to offer unlimited, nonbinding amendments to the budget blueprint before final passage.
“That’s why hasn’t wanted to do it ,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., ranking member of the Budget Committee.
Last year, Republicans kept the Senate in well past midnight to vote on a host of politically sensitive amendments during the vote-a-rama — their first opportunity to do so since 2009.
Sessions said he hopes that Democrats try to pass a budget resolution, as the 1974 law that established the modern budget process calls for.
“We just need to honor what the law says," he said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that something always comes from the vote-a-rama, pointing to the medical device tax vote during the last one.
“They are still regretting the medical device tax amendment,” he said.
The Senate voted 79 to 20 last March to nix the 2.3 percent excise tax, a part of Obamacare.
The issue later came into play in during the October government shutdown, with Republicans including it in legislation to keep the government open. Democrats rejected the ploy.
A Senate Democratic aide called Republicans' demand for a budget resolution "rich" given that, the aide noted, Republicans, including Sessions, last year blocked Democrats from going to conference on a budget blueprint with the House.
"Republicans are like the dog that caught the bus," the aide said, adding that the GOP "didn't actually want to have that debate" on the budget.
Sessions also believes that Democrats want to avoid having to vote on a budget that would likely raise taxes and spending in an election year.
"They don’t want to show their hand, they want to hide the fact that they tax and spend,” he said. “There are some good Democrats, I think they are wrestling with what to do about it."
Sens. Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., both members of the budget panel, also said they hope to have a debate and votes on a budget plan, that, while not a law, lays out the future direction of spending and tax policy.
“Obviously, we already have a top-line number ... but the fact is you can really often, though nonbinding, put a lot of policy and other direction and suggestions into it and I think we ought to go through that process,” Crapo said.
Ayotte said it's important to the committee to debate the budget.
“Otherwise why have a Budget Committee to look forward and prioritize?” she said.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., expects Democrats to do whatever is in their political self-interest.
“The traditions, the structures, the things we have in place to try to govern our country effectively are of no matter,” Corker said of Democrats.
After being rebuked by Republicans most recently on allowing amendments to extending unemployment insurance benefits, Reid said before the January recess that he intends to hold more GOP amendment votes.
“We have as a caucus have announced to our Republican colleagues, if they want to start doing relevant amendments, and a number that isn't outrageous, we're happy to do that,” Reid said. “We're not asking for germane amendments, which is a higher standard, we'll only do relevant amendments. I don't know how they can complain about that.”
In particular, a vote-a-rama could put vulnerable Democrats in states such as Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina on the spot on Obamacare.
Before the recess, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, sought to get unanimous consent to have some Obamacare amendments considered in connection with the omnibus appropriations bill. The Democrats objected, Cruz didn't get his votes and the bill was cleared without delay.
“The last time the Senate Democrats voted on Obamacare was before its major rollout, was before millions of people have had their policies canceled, was before the premiums have skyrocketed, was before millions of Americans discovered that they may not be able to see their doctors,” Cruz said after failing to get a vote. So far, he said, "The answer from Harry Reid and Senate Democrats is absolutely nothing."