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.
It passed 52 to 46. Two Republicans with presidential ambitions, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, voted against the measure as did all Democrats.
It took almost 16 hours to get through all the amendments, many of which were aimed at scoring political points more than making actual policy changes. That’s because the underlying budget resolution – and the amendments that passed – will never become law. But the measure sets important spending parameters for the committees that approve agency funding.
The Republican-controlled House passed its own budget this week, meaning the different versions will need to be reconciled.
Passing a budget is 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, cuts trillions in spending including from Medicare and Medicaid and eliminates Obamacare. It also employs an unorthodox way to add more money for defense spending, despite spending caps Congress agreed to four years ago.
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 – as many Republicans have vowed to do – without the threat of a Democratic filibuster.
While the President has said he would veto the repeal, passing it through both chambers would be a key 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.
Democrats pushed amendments on climate change, equal pay, infrastructure spending and minimum wage, all aimed at making Republicans squirm. The GOP fired back with amendments on Environmental Protection Agency regulations, Israel, defense spending, tax cuts and other issues designed to put Democrats on the spot.
Potential 2016 presidential candidates Paul and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, skirmished over competing proposals to boost defense spending. The key difference between their proposals was that Paul’s include offsets so the additional defense funds wouldn’t raise the deficit. Both measures failed but Paul’s got blasted, picking up support from only three other senators. Cruz voted for Rubio’s amendment but against Paul’s.
A Democratic proposal to allow workers to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave passed on a surprisingly strong 61-39 vote. Several Republicans up for re-election voted with all Democrats to support the measure but the four GOP senators on the presidential track voted against it.
Another Democratic proposal that won the support of 11 Republicans was an amendment by Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii to allow Social Security and Veterans Affairs benefits for legally married same-sex couples even if they live in a state that doesn’t allow gay marriage. Ron Johnson who is up for re-election in Wisconsin and newly elected Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina were among the Republicans who backed the proposal which passed 57-43.
An amendment from Rubio to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem passed on a voice vote.
Before the votes, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, quipped, “Don’t go out and have a beer before late night votes. It makes you sleep,” when asked for advice on how to survive the long day.
“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.
A new vote every 20 minutes
Senators were tethered to the floor while a new vote was 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.
“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.”
Nine and half hours into voting, McConnell and Reid implored senators to withdraw amendments or accept quick voice votes on them so senators could leave.
“At the rate we’re going, we could be here unit 5 o’clock in the morning,” McConnell said. “It’s, I think, a good time to seek some cooperation.”
“No one’s election is going to be determined by what’s taken place here tonight,” Reid added. “I defy anyone to show me in any of these vote-a-ramas were a vote has made any difference.”
Reid promised to buy dinner for everyone when the Senate reconvenes after a two week recess if they could finish by 1130pm. They did not.
CNN’s Athena Jones contributed to this report.