Senate sets new mark for longest recorded vote thanks to vote-a-rama 2021

Previous longest vote in modern era was in 2019

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is seen outside the chamber as the Senate debates the coronavirus relief package on Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is seen outside the chamber as the Senate debates the coronavirus relief package on Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 5, 2021 at 9:30pm

Senators were prepared for a long day and night of voting, but on Friday the chamber stalled out on the very first vote of an anticipated vote-a-rama and the single question dragged on to become the longest Senate vote in modern history.

The Senate began voting at 11:03 a.m. Friday on an amendment from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The previous record of 10 hours and 8 minutes fell at 9:12 p.m. 

The holdup wasn’t Sanders' amendment itself, although the proposal had already stoked controversy and a hotly contested ruling from the parliamentarian. Democrats had already dropped the minimum wage provision due to the ruling that it wouldn’t comply with budget reconciliation rules. The Budget panel’s ranking Republican, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, raised a point of order, creating a 60-vote hurdle for Sanders’ amendment.

Instead, the extended open vote signaled a behind-the-scenes scramble to secure votes for future amendments expected during the marathon vote-a-rama process, specifically over renewing unemployment benefits.

With the Senate split 50-50 between parties, Democrats were pressed to corral moderates and progressives within their ranks, with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III the key vote on an unemployment insurance proposal.

But more than six hours into the vote, Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin hadn’t seen the key player being courted by both sides.

“I haven’t talked to him in two hours so I don’t know,” he said of Manchin.

As the vote dragged on, senators returned to their offices, ate lunch and then dinner. Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota and Ohio’s Rob Portman, author of the GOP unemployment proposal, huddled in Thune’s office just off the Senate floor, with Manchin on the phone.

Manchin also talked to Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and President Joe Biden during the stoppage. Manchin eventually struck a deal with his Democratic colleagues, breaking the impasse, but not in time to avert the record-setting vote duration.

The seemingly endless vote provided ample time for Republicans to organize, announce and present a press conference, all while the question remained open on the floor.

But senators were prepared, expecting a vote-a-rama that stacks sometimes hundreds of votes on amendments one after the other often stretching overnight.

“Vote-a-rama is upon us. Stay hydrated and keep good cheer,” Graham said at a press conference.

South Carolina Republican Tim Scott's staff had a case of sugar-free Red Bull at the ready, along with snacks. Kansas Republican Roger Marshall posted a video showing off a box of Astro Doughnuts in the Senate GOP cloakroom, comparing the coveted local D.C. treats to the underlying bill, which he accused of having “lots of pork” and “lots of sugar sweeteners for the Democrats.”

But the vote on the budget point of order was not the first agonizing delay in action on the $1.9 trillion relief bill.

On Thursday, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., brought consideration of the bill to a halt by requiring Senate clerks to read aloud the 628-page piece of legislation in its entirety.

Usually, the Senate waives the full reading of bills or amendments. But Johnson objected to the usually uneventful waiving.

A team of clerks traded off every 20-to-30 minutes reading the bill aloud. It took 10 hours and 43 minutes, ending a little after 2 a.m. Friday.

The vote on the Sanders minimum wage amendment surpasses the previous modern record holder from June 2019, on a vote to limit debate on an amendment by New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall that would bar U.S. attacks on Iran without congressional authorization. That vote was held open for a total of 10 hours and 8 minutes.

That vote opened at 5:02 a.m., to allow senators with early morning flights to vote and then leave town for the Independence Day recess. It was held open to accommodate the Democratic senators who were in Miami for presidential primary debates. They flew into Washington to cast their votes.

Official statistics aren’t kept on vote durations in the Senate, but CQ Roll Call archives show that on December 21, 2018, a vote on a motion to proceed to a House-passed funding bill to prevent a government shutdown lasted 5 hours and 18 minutes. The vote ended with Vice President Mike Pence casting his 13th tie-breaking vote in the Senate.

That vote began at 12:31 p.m. and gaveled to a close at 5:49 p.m.

Before that, a February 2009 vote on that year’s stimulus act conference report was held open for about 5 hours and 15 minutes to accommodate senators with two different scheduling conflicts.

In that case, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn. — a Modern Orthodox Jew — voted before the Sabbath began at sundown. But Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown was out of town attending his mother’s memorial service and had to fly back to Washington.

The Senate Historical Office notes that any discussion of the longest votes should be applied to modern Senate practice, since vote time limitation had been less stringent in the past. The Historical Office noted a 1955 vote that ran for several hours because Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey had a delayed flight. Lyndon B. Johnson, the majority leader at the time, kept the vote open until Humphrey’s return.

Of course, Humphrey would later serve as vice president under Johnson.