‘Vote-a-Rama‘ Keeps Wearing Senate Down

Posted March 25, 2003 at 6:54pm

A collective sigh of relief will echo throughout the Capitol hallways today, signaling the end to a marathon session of votes that tested Senators’ patience and helped further drive a partisan wedge between the two political parties.

“I am so over this,” griped a Republican aide as the Senate prepared Tuesday for its third day of voting.

The 2004 budget “Vote-a-Rama” is scheduled to end this afternoon after days of partisan skirmishes where Senators cast back-to-back votes on a dizzying array of dozens of amendments that will help shape the nation’s economic policy for the next 10 years.

The votes will also serve as valuable campaign fodder for Democratic and Republican political operatives who are starting to collect data and material on the 34 incumbents who must seek reelection in 2004.

“As Republicans proved last year in the Senate races, every vote matters,” said a Senate Republican source. “We are carefully watching to see where the Democrats fall on many of these close issues that are being argued now.”

A senior Senate Democratic aide, too, acknowledged they are keeping a close tally of the budget votes to use in 2004.

“The whole point of this exercise is to serve as potential campaign ads in election years,” the aide said. “That is the only way you can justify spending several days of voting like this.”

When the dust settled on Tuesday, Democrats appeared to carry the day, chipping away at President Bush’s $726 billion tax cut proposal by winning a series of amendments, most notably Sen. John Breaux’s (D-La.) effort to cut the tax cut in half.

Republicans charged that Democrats are using these fifty-plus votes in place of filibustering the budget, another delaying tactic to slow down the progress of getting things done.

“It is a continuation of the same strategy: obstruct, delay and politicize,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.).

Democrats meanwhile, accused Republicans of trying to muscle the tax cut through the chamber by allowing it to be shielded by budget reconciliation rules that limit debate.

“The Republicans are using the reconciliation bill to hide the president’s tax cut,” said Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). “What is the Senate’s purpose? What is its purpose for being? Its purpose is to debate and amend.”

While Democrats and Republicans disagreed over the political strategy that will help shape the country’s economic policy, they do agree on one thing: it’s time to find an alternative to Vote-a-Rama.

Democrats are angry that Vote-a-Rama limits their debate time to one minute before each vote, barely enough time to string several sentences together. In fact, Byrd failed to get unanimous consent to extend his speaking time from one minute to five minutes Tuesday, a rare rebuffing to the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

“Vote-a-Rama cuts people out,” Byrd said, moments after his amendment to strike reconciliation instructions from the budget bill failed. “They have no opportunity to hear any debate because there can’t be any debate.”

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) agreed with Byrd that Vote-a-Rama should be abolished, although he had other reasons.

“There is nothing like it in the Senate,” Domenici said. “Never in history has there been anything like the spectacle of the Vote-a-Rama. It is sort of a loophole in an otherwise orderly, time-restrained Budget Act and that has got to be fixed somehow.”

Ironically, it is Domenici who first coined the phrase Vote-a-Rama in the 1998 budget debate to describe an endless number of votes, according to Don Ritchie, the associate Senate historian.

While this extended time on the floor allows freshmen Senators to become acquainted with their colleagues and learn the chamber’s rules and procedures quicker, the more senior Senators dread the long days.

“When I first came here I was 34 and maybe I didn’t notice it much,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “Now I am 62 and almost 30 years later I feel it a little bit more, but you do it because that is what we are here for.”

One junior Member who has made his mark in the past few days is Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), who helped keep the trains running on time during Friday’s contentious debate.

Sununu served as presiding officer for six hours and was not shy about rapping down the gavel to bring order to the chamber before tempers flared.

“It takes a little bit of time to develop an understanding of how forceful and how direct you can be in the Senate given its protocol versus the House,” said Sununu, a former House Member. “In the House, the gavel is much bigger and you can be a little bit more forceful and here you probably have to be a little more subtle.”

Still, Sununu’s handling of his task drew praise from Republicans and Democrats alike, including Byrd, a stickler for Senate rules and procedures.

Anticipating the long days, over the past week several Senators shifted the nerve center of their personal offices to their Capitol hideaways. Throughout the day, Senators could be seen darting off the Senate floor heading in various directions to these coveted offices for a brief moment of respite before being summoned to the floor for another vote.”

“I have brought over to the hideaway all the reading material I will need all day so each minute is going to be efficiently used and I can handle telephone calls,” Foreign Relations Chairman Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) said yesterday.

With another long day expected today, Lugar said he will hold a Foreign Relations hearing in the Capitol to ease travel time between the Dirksen building and the Senate floor between votes.

The more junior Senators were resigned to retreating to their respective cloakrooms to catch the latest developments on the war or meeting with constituents in the Senate reception room.

Finding a silver lining in the Vote-a-Rama experience, Leahy said that wealthy Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) has softened these long days by springing for some tasty cuisine.

“Having Jon Corzine in the Caucus, the food has actually gotten a lot better,” Leahy joked.

But Breaux said some of his Democratic colleagues are going to have to go on a diet when the Vote-a-Rama is finally over.

“It forces Members to eat more in the cloakroom because there is nothing to do in between but go back and eat snacks,” Breaux said. “The doctor should be checking out the snack table back there!”