Senate approves budget resolution after ‘vote-a-rama’

Next stop is the House, which plans to vote the week of Aug. 23

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer says he wants to have the reconciliation bill ready by Sept. 15. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer says he wants to have the reconciliation bill ready by Sept. 15. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 10, 2021 at 12:56pm, Updated August 11, 2021 at 10:27am

The Senate adopted its fiscal 2022 budget resolution early Wednesday morning by a vote of 50-49, paving the way for the House to take up the blueprint.

Final adoption in the House would unlock the reconciliation process, which Democrats are planning to use to pass a filibuster-proof $3.5 trillion package of spending and tax breaks intended to expand the social safety net and combat climate change.

The Senate worked through Tuesday and overnight on numerous amendments of the marathon voting session known as a “vote-a-rama” on the budget resolution before wrapping things up around 4 a.m. Wednesday.

Earlier on Tuesday afternoon, the Senate voted to kick off a debate over Democrats’ budget blueprint that, once adopted by both chambers, will unlock the door to a yet-to-be-written $3.5 trillion package of new spending and tax breaks for families and lower-income workers and to combat the effects of climate change. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said Tuesday his chamber would take up the blueprint the week of Aug. 23, assuming it’s adopted by the Senate.

The motion to proceed to the budget was adopted 50-49. Typically that vote triggers up to 50 hours of debate, evenly divided between the majority and minority to control. But with the session already stretching farther into August than senators anticipated, neither side had much appetite to drag things out. 

That means the usual “vote-a-rama” that ensues at the end of debate began almost immediately after the motion to proceed. 

[Democrats unveil blueprint for $3.5T budget reconciliation bill]

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said that if senators remained on the floor and voted from their desks, and were able to confine each amendment vote to 10 minutes or less, the process could potentially wrap up by midnight. Thune quickly added that might be “the triumph of hope over experience,” and Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., predicted that “it’s going to be a long evening.”

But Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told reporters “there’s no reason to keep us here too late.”

“This vote-a-rama really doesn’t have any impact because it doesn’t have the force of law,” Johnson said. “The more important one will be at the … back end of this when we’re actually making law.”

That’s a reference to the eventual marathon vote session on the budget reconciliation package that top Democrats are billing as the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

The budget resolution, unveiled Monday by Senate Democrats, itself isn’t signed by the president and doesn't put into effect any policy changes.

But it’s a critical document because it provides the procedural protections Democrats need to pass their $3.5 trillion fiscal package later this year on a party-line vote. And the vote-a-rama process offers Republicans an opportunity to get Democrats in tough reelection races on record taking stances that may put them on the spot back home.

Speaking on the floor earlier Tuesday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans don’t have the votes in the 50-50 Senate to defeat what he called a “reckless taxing and spending spree” but vowed they will “stand up and be counted.”

“We’re going to argue it out right here on the floor at some length,” McConnell said. “Every single senator will be going on record, over and over and over.”

McConnell said Republicans would propose amendments to increase funds for national security, protect small businesses and family farms “from crushing tax hikes,” encourage schools to reopen, “stop the catch and release of COVID-positive illegal immigrants coming into our country,” and to “protect taxpayers from being forced to fund the horrors of abortion.”

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on the floor his side was ready to “move quickly and decisively” through the amendment process.

House concerns

Once adopted, the budget blueprint moves to the House, where concerns from both Democratic moderates and progressives are already evident.

Centrists don't want to delay a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate earlier Tuesday. Moderates also want more detail on what will actually be in the still-unwritten reconciliation bill.

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the infrastructure bill would have to wait until the Senate passes the eventual reconciliation package.

[Senate OKs infrastructure bill; fate in House tied to bigger budget bill]

House progressives made clear on Tuesday that remains their position. The Congressional Progressive Caucus released an internal survey that found a “majority” of the 96-member group wouldn’t vote for the infrastructure bill “until the Senate has passed budget reconciliation legislation deemed acceptable” by the caucus. And some progressives have already said the Senate budget blueprint isn’t big and bold enough.

So it’s still unclear when the reconciliation markup process will begin, even as the underlying instructions provide a Sept. 15 deadline for committee action.

In a statement after the infrastructure bill passed the Senate on a 69-30 vote, Pelosi said only that House Democrats “will continue to work with the Senate to ensure that our priorities” are included in both a final infrastructure bill and the eventual reconciliation package.

Democrats want to use the reconciliation bill to enact sweeping expansions of domestic social policy and efforts to combat climate change.

The budget assumes a $3.5 trillion net increase in mandatory spending over the next decade, though the reconciliation instructions allow for only half of that to add to deficits over the next decade.

The tax-writing Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees are charged with coming up with the bulk of those offsets. The instructions are also flexible for those panels, giving them a mandate only to reduce deficits by a total of $1 billion.

Finance and Ways and Means, which also have jurisdiction over Medicare and other health care benefit programs, could in theory outline trillions of dollars in new spending and refundable tax credits for lower- to middle-income workers and families. They would just have to match that with commensurate tax increases on the rich and big corporations, along with health care savings they've said they'll try to wring out of prescription drug subsidies.

One matter the budget resolution doesn’t address is the statutory debt ceiling, which reset to about $28.5 trillion on Aug. 1. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has said Congress needs to act by late September or the U.S. government could potentially default on its financial obligations, an event that could send shockwaves through the economy as borrowing costs soar and benefit payments can't be made.

Without raising the debt ceiling through reconciliation, Democratic leaders are making a bet that at least 10 Senate Republicans will come around and provide the votes needed to get over the 60-vote cloture threshold.

But a letter circulated by Johnson on Tuesday opposing any legislation to raise the debt ceiling garnered 47 signatures, putting lawmakers potentially on a course for the type of fiscal brinksmanship not seen since August 2011. That’s when Congress waited until the very last minute to raise the debt limit after a hard-fought deal on spending curbs that led to automatic cuts known as a sequester.

Lindsey McPherson and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.