Politics

What Did the Senate’s All-Night Parade of Budget Votes Mean?

Nothing, mostly.

Democratic senators meet with President Joe Biden to discuss COVID relief legislation on February 03, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Democratic senators meet with President Joe Biden to discuss COVID relief legislation on February 03, 2021 in Washington, DC. Pool/Getty Images

At 5:35 a.m. on Friday, the Senate completed the grueling process it had begun at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday: Passing a budget by a 50-50, party-line vote in which Vice President Kamala Harris served as tiebreaker. The “vote-a-rama” process was open to any and all amendments, and of the 889(!) that were offered, 40 received roll-call votes. In a chamber that moves at the brisk pace of an embedded boulder, that’s enough for a 15-hour day.

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The Senate is a confounding, ancient place that draws its strength from confusing the public. Judging by the social media clamor during certain votes Thursday night, the Senate drew a lot of strength from its all-nighter. But there are only two important takeaways from the process: (1) Passing the budget was little more than a procedural step to unlock the reconciliation process, which will allow Senate Democrats to pass a COVID relief bill without fear of a filibuster, and (2) the amendments that made their way into the resolution were essentially messaging votes, and will have no binding effect on what can and can’t be included in the COVID relief bill.

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There was, for example, a bipartisan amendment brokered between centrist Democrats and Republicans saying that the next round of direct relief checks shouldn’t go to “upper-income taxpayers.” It passed 99 to 1, but its effect on who’s eligible for the final COVID relief legislation is nothing; it didn’t even bother to define what “upper-income” meant.  The best way to think of these amendments is that the Senate was being asked, casually, for its take on various issues. It wasn’t making law.

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So why did they even bother voting on all of these amendments? The Republican minority took it as a rare opportunity to force votes on Democrats, and get them on the record, on difficult issues. (Democrats did the same thing when Republicans teed up reconciliation bills twice in 2017.)

Indiana Sen. Todd Young, for example, called a vote on forbidding undocumented immigrants from receiving direct relief checks. It passed, 58 to 42, with 8 mostly middle-of-the-road or vulnerable Democrats joining Republicans. Montana Sen. Steve Daines called one on “improvement of relations between the United States and Canada with regard to the Keystone XL Pipeline.” In other words, the vote was, is the Keystone XL Pipeline good or bad? It passed 52 to 48 with Sens. Joe Manchin and Jon Tester joining the Republicans. A similar one on fracking passed as well.

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One interesting moment, however, came when Republicans tried to pin Democrats on the $15 minimum wage, an element of the Biden relief plan that doesn’t have unanimous Democratic support. Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst called up an amendment “prohibiting an increase in the Federal minimum wage during a global pandemic to $15 per hour.” Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, who was managing the floor debate, said that he agreed with the amendment, and that’s why his $15 minimum wage legislation phases the new rate in over several years. The amendment then passed by voice vote, sparing the need for senators to go on the record.

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None of the amendments on Keystone XL, undocumented immigrants receiving checks, or fracking even made it into the final budget resolution when all was said and done. Near the end of the process, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer successfully passed an amendment stripping those three out, as they could have complicated efforts to pass the resolution in the House. (The House passed it on Friday, 219 to 209.)

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If there was any use to the amendment process, beyond Republicans trolling Democrats to create talking points for the 2022 campaign, it was to give hints about where the politics are on various issues. Democrats, for example, might ultimately pare back the direct relief checks in the bill—not the $1,400 top amount, which President Biden has been insistent on keeping, but the thresholds at which they phase out. But they didn’t officially decide that Thursday night.

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We’ll learn a lot more about where the politics are on various issues over the next couple of weeks, though, when Democrats actually write the COVID relief bill.

Now that Democrats have unlocked the use of reconciliation, the next step is for all of the committees tasked with developing pieces of the legislation to get to work. When that’s done, the budget committees will compile everything into a single package and advance it for a full floor vote. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday morning that her chamber hopes to have this done in the next two weeks, while the Senate is preoccupied with an impeachment trial.

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Once the process hits the Senate, things will get more dicey. House Democrats have a narrow margin to work with, but Senate Democrats have zero margin: They will need 50 out of 50 Democrats—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin—to agree on a COVID relief bill. They also will have to contend with the “Byrd Rule,” a statute which constrains what can and can’t be passed through reconciliation.

In other words, don’t waste your limited stock of energy anguishing over what non-binding messaging amendments did or didn’t pass in the non-binding budget resolution debate. Democrats are only just starting on the real, tedious thing.

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