Vote-a-rama mania hits the Senate

Published 5:03 PM EDT, Thu March 26, 2015
(CNN) —  

Senators are slogging through a grueling and exhausting day as they cast scores of back-to-back votes on amendments during the annual budget vote-a-rama, which could last until the wee hours of Friday morning before there is a final vote on the bill.

“Don’t go out and have a beer before late-night votes. It makes you go to sleep,” Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, quipped when asked about how to survive the session that could last 12 to 16 hours.

“I brought my shoes with the big cushion soles instead of the leather soles,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, another veteran of the night, said with a knowing smile.

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Senators are tethered to the floor while a new vote is called every 20 minutes or so, huddling with staffers, constituents, lobbyists and others as meetings move from Senate offices to makeshift gatherings in the Capitol.

Though the underlying budget bill — and the amendments that pass — will never become law, the votes are aimed at scoring political points. But if the budget passes, it sets important spending parameters for the committees that approve agency funding levels.

It’s also seen as a key mark of whether the majority party is governing effectively.

“For years, the Democrat-led Senate refused to pass a balanced budget; it usually failed to produce any budget at all,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said shortly before the votes started. “Today, a Senate under new management is delivering that change.”

The GOP budget balances in 10 years, makes cuts to Medicare and Medicaid and eliminates Obamacare. It also includes a unorthodox way to add more money for defense spending, despite spending caps Congress agreed to four years ago.

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Even John McCain, R-Arizona, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a supporter of greater defense spending, said the approach is a “gimmick.”

But it’s a necessary one, he said, because it’s a dangerous world.

Perhaps most importantly for Republicans, passing a budget would allow them to use a special Senate rule known as reconciliation. With it, they can repeal Obamacare without the threat of a Democratic filibuster.

While the President has said he would veto the repeal, passing it through both chambers would be an important accomplishment for the GOP.

“The Republicans have a totally different vision of what the country is and should be than we have,” said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.

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But almost no one likes the vote-a-rama.

“There is no doubt that the process gets misused to just simply make the other side cast uncomfortable votes,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said. “I think that’s unfortunate because I think the budget should be a serious process, and when we do a vote-a-rama — where we will vote 40 times into the wee hours of the morning with only a minute of explanation pro and a minute of explanation against the amendment — it’s hard to say it’s a dignified process worthy of the United States Senate, which is supposed to be the world’s most deliberative body.”

First-term Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, is one of the likely presidential candidates who needs to watch out for amendment traps laid by Democrats.

“It’s one of the things people will look to to see if you’re changing your positions when you run for office,” he said. “I’m proud of my record both here and my time in the state legislature, and I don’t anticipate a potential candidacy for anything impacting how I would vote on one issue or another.”

Democrats readied amendments on climate change, equal pay, infrastructure spending and other issues aimed at Republicans. The GOP fired back with amendments on Environmental Protection Agency regulations, Israel, defense spending and more.

CNN’s Athena Jones contributed to this report.