WASHINGTON — Around midnight Saturday, a sleepy-eyed Senator Joe Manchin III, a Democrat from West Virginia, brokered a climate, health and tax deal that passed without a hitch within hours. Sitting quietly at his desk in the Senate chamber, staring at him dazedly walking to mid-range as he chewed M&Ms.
A vital part of the Democratic domestic agenda is about to win — but first, Mr Manchin and his colleagues will have to work through the night on junk food and caffeine, maybe some booze and plenty of politically charged speeches, Because they debated and voted on a series of non-binding amendments.
Voting-a-rama (yes, that’s actually what it’s called), a familiar but much-maligned ritual for the eighty-somethings and elders who make up the Senate, began late Saturday night , until Sunday morning. It’s the last chance for Republicans to try to undermine Democrats’ top legislative priorities — or at least politically attack them on the road to passage — and a test of Democrats’ resolve to maintain their delicate compromises.
It’s also the ultimate expression of senator weirdness and dysfunction — a time-consuming job that has little impact on policy but keeps senators up at night, only to end when they lose motivation to propose more amendments. About 12 hours later, they’re still on Sunday morning, with no firm indication of when they’re done.
“You know how much I’m going to miss voting?” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who is retiring this year. “The answer is absolutely no.”
The Rama vote is part of a mysterious process known as reconciliation that Democrats are using to speed Congress through their sweeping climate, energy and tax packages. It protects certain budget-related legislation from obstruction, allowing it to pass by a simple majority, rather than the normal 60 votes needed to avoid Republican obstruction.
But it also allows any senator to propose any changes to the legislation at the time of the legislation. That sparked all kinds of political views — in this case, just months before the midterm elections.
In anticipation of the theatrical performance, senators filled their offices with blankets, snacks and energy drinks. Takeaway food containers were seen throughout the corridors of the Capitol on Saturday night. By 8 a.m. Sunday, eight hours after the event, Senators were reclining in chairs, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, was yawning and rubbing his eyes.
This is the fourth vote in this Congress, with about 40 votes in each of the previous episodes. This time, as in the past, Democrats are united in resisting Republican efforts to undermine their bill and thwart party amendments.
These include attempts to cut funding to the IRS and Environmental Protection Agency. Republican senators have also tried unsuccessfully to increase oil and gas lease sales in some states.
What’s in the Democrats’ climate and tax bills
a new proposal. A $369 billion climate and tax package proposed by Senate Democrats in July could have far-reaching consequences for the environment and the economy. Here are some key terms:
In an effort to pressure Democrats on a politically influential issue, Republicans forced a vote on a tax on gas and energy companies that they believe could tip the country into recession and raise oil prices.
Republicans succeeded in making an amendment to the bill, reaching a provision that would cap insulin prices at $35 a month. Democrats kept it in the legislation even amid concerns it might violate settlement rules, effectively encouraging Republicans to call for a mass measure to be removed and a public vote. (The action reserved caps for Medicare patients, millions of whom have diabetes and still benefit from it.)
Democratic caucus members also use the process to make political points. Sen. Bernie Sanders, 80, chairman of the Vermont Independent Budget Committee, introduced several proposals overnight to express his disappointment at the scale of the bill.
“This may actually be the last opportunity in a long time for people to vote on progress,” Mr Sanders said at about 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, his eyes bloodshot after a sleepless night .
But Democrats are determined to resist the temptation to change the legislation even slightly, for fear of losing the unanimous support of the caucus over a fragile compromise.
“The balance is very delicate, and any amendment, even a ‘good’ one, has the potential to upset the balance — so expect to vote against what we normally want,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R. ,” explained in a Twitter post.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic adds another risk factor to meetings as 100 Senators — the oldest class in recent history — gathered for hours in a closed indoor space to vote. Democrats have minimal control in the Senate by a 50-50 vote, and they can’t even afford a disease that could strip them of their majority.
“With the Covid numbers right now, it’s very likely that one of these individuals may have contracted Covid,” said Kirsten Coleman, an assistant research professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, noting that the event created the perfect conditions for a superspreader event.
She added: “I would be especially cautious because there is an older group who are at higher risk for more severe disease if they do contract the virus.”
Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, has loudly questioned whether Democrats might choose not to test for Covid to avoid jeopardizing their bill, saying doing so for the voting marathon could jeopardize “not only each other, but staff, Capitol Police, custodial staff, food service staff and countless others who keep this institution running.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, 89, said she wasn’t particularly concerned because she planned to wear a mask and take the necessary precautions. She added that she had been taking tests until the weekend.
“I’m not afraid. We do our best,” Ms Feinstein said.
Sen. Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, said he put his N-95 mask back on last week because he “didn’t want to get Covid-19 and screw this up.”
Still, business went on as usual, with most maskless lawmakers huddled on the Senate floor, rather than isolated in their personal offices as many voted in Lamas last year.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, 82, a Vermont Democrat, returned to the Capitol for the first time since undergoing hip surgery last month. An aide escorted the senator interim president through the Capitol in a Batman-themed wheelchair.
Senators prepared for the long night, as they usually do for voting: napping and stocking up on comfort food and other items in the office.
Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sass Senate He had closed his eyes for two hours before the fast-paced voting began.
Ms Feinstein said she had the Mounds bar and soft drinks ready. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, has her beloved atomic fireball in her purse for easy access; Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, stocks marshmallows and hot tamales Flavored Peeps, a product from his hometown, for his staff to enjoy.
Mr. Schatz has an extra cellphone battery pack, a hoodie, drinks “and a little wine,” he said in his office.
Emily Cochran Contribution report.