Specter Seeks to Tame ‘Bedlam’

Posted April 1, 2008 at 6:43pm

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has put together a plan to tame the increasingly chaotic, all-day, all-night “vote-a-rama” on dozens of amendments to the annual budget — and at least one key Democrat also intends to work up a plan for reforming the process.

“The place was bedlam, absolute bedlam,” Specter said of the nearly 15-hour series of votes last month on amendments to the budget resolution. “We were considering amendments which had not been available for examination by Senators or their staffs.” Specter added that “it was impossible to hear what was going on in the chamber.”

Specter on Tuesday outlined a proposal to impose new time restrictions on when amendments to the resolution must be submitted and to require all changes to be printed in the Congressional Record a day before the final series of votes.

Specter’s call for changes to the budget process comes as Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is preparing his own push to empanel a special task force to reform the vote-a-rama process.

In fact, Conrad discussed the issue with Specter on the Senate floor during Tuesday’s vote on housing legislation, both lawmakers said. “I just went over and thanked him for offering it,” Conrad said. He added that while he already has begun discussing the need for reform with the leaders of both parties and Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), having a Republican Member out front on the issue could help ease concerns that Democrats are looking to squash minority rights.

“People are always suspicious that you’re trying to limit the minority’s rights,” Conrad said.

Under Specter’s proposed reforms, lawmakers would be required to file all first degree amendments to the budget resolution within 10 hours of debate on the measure, and all second degree amendments would be due within 20 hours. Prior to beginning the 40th hour of debate on the resolution, a new one-day period would be added to allow Members to review the amendments, all of which would be printed in that day’s Congressional Record.

Specter’s proposal is based in part on a 2001 resolution introduced by Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), and Specter said Tuesday his staff worked on the reforms during the spring recess in consultation with Byrd’s aides.

“Picking up where Byrd left off is a very good talking point,” Specter quipped, noting that Byrd’s institutional knowledge and understanding of how the Senate does — and often should — work is well-respected among his colleagues.

Specter said that while lawmakers should be allowed to offer numerous amendments to the budget resolution, too often Members in both parties have been using the annual vote-a-rama as a way to promote “gotcha” amendments designed to make Members take tough political votes.

This year’s vote-a-rama began at 11:15 a.m. March 13 and continued until 2 a.m. March 14, with lawmakers on the floor for most of the session. Votes were separated by two minutes of “debate,” with the sponsor having one minute to make his or her case and an opponent given one minute to respond. In his floor speech announcing his proposal, Specter noted that in many cases, the noise in the chamber during the vote-a-rama made it impossible for Members to even hear what the speakers were saying — which was particularly problematic since many of the amendments had not been seen until the vote.

Many of the votes were highly partisan, including proposals on immigration, trade and a proposal to strip funding for the city of Berkley, Calif., because the city council had passed a resolution denouncing Marine Corps recruiters.

Specter said that while he fully supports the rights of Members to push amendments to the budget resolution that are related to the measure, they should find an alternative venue to push for bills that are more political in nature.

“Let them have any amendments they want related to the budget … [but] if they want to put up gotcha bills, let them do them on authorization bills or write legislation and take it through committee,” Specter said.

Conrad said he supports Specter’s efforts to begin the reform process and said he will likely begin moving forward with his proposal for a bipartisan task force to propose changes. During a series of meetings during last month’s vote-a-rama with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Gregg, Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rules ranking member Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Conrad said he made his case for finding some way to change the process for amending the budget resolution.

Conrad said there is general agreement that some fixes are needed, although it is unclear when a task force will be put together. Specter indicated something should be done soon, noting that “One of the problems is we forget the pain once it’s more than two weeks old.”

While it is important that the minority’s rights be protected and that people be allowed to amend the budget, Conrad said, “it’s not fine to be voting on things that aren’t related to the budget. It’s also not fine to have amendments where there’s been no notice and you haven’t had a chance to review them.”

Nevertheless, he said he believes some way forward can be found — and is needed to fix the process. “I’ve been in the minority and I’ve been in the majority, so I know how it is. But I also recognize that there has got to be a better way than this,” Conrad said.