Shortly after 3 p.m. on Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris cast a tie-breaking vote to kick off Senate debate on Democrats’ $1.9 trillion relief bill. After the clerk began to read the 628-page legislation, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made a customary request to waive the reading of the bill. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson rose to object. As I write this, the clerk is just getting started on reading aloud the table of contents of a piece of legislation. Republicans think the full recitation could chew up 10 hours. Senate clerks think they can do it in five.
The objection was the first salvo in a wave of dilatory stunts that Johnson and his Republicans have planned over the next few days as they try to do something they’ve been wholly unsuccessful at so far: turning public opinion against Democrats’ popular legislation, which Republicans wish to frame as less a COVID relief bill than a raid on the Treasury for unrelated Democratic priorities.
Johnson says that he’s submitting the Senate clerks to this trial of vocal-cord durability not to be a jerk, but because the “American people deserve to know what’s in it.” It’s hard to think of a less effective way to inform the American people about what’s in a bill than by forcing an hourslong recitation of incomprehensible legislative language on the Senate floor, but that’s the message.
And when that’s done, Johnson and other Republicans have more plans for dragging out the process. After the bill text has been read aloud—and Middle America is out with pitchforks, infuriated by learning through C-SPAN that the legislation would strike the semicolon in subparagraph 4(b) from Section 2104 of the Semiconductor Transparency Act of 1986—there’s a period of up to 20 hours of debate, followed by the rapid-succession, open-amendment process known as a “vote-a-rama.” In a typical vote-a-rama, hundreds of amendments get submitted, but only a small portion get a vote as the physical necessity of sleeping asserts its primacy. There were 889 amendments submitted during the last all-nighter in February, for example, and the chamber only voted on around 40 of them—which was still more than usual.
This time, however, Republicans are talking tough about a far more grueling process. Asked how many amendment votes he’d like to see, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said, “I’m hoping for infinity.” Indiana Sen. Mike Braun wouldn’t quite go all the way to infinity, but he said there would be many more votes than there were in the “warm-up session” last month.
The ringleader of this show is, again, Ron Johnson. Johnson is trying to set up a process, as he told reporters Thursday, to “make sure that all the amendments that are offered are actually voted on.” This would involve Republican senators working in shifts on the floor to ensure that the body doesn’t tire out. “I was in a business that had continuing shift operations in manufacturing,” he told reporters, “so this is, this is just what we did.” (Gumming up the machines to delay output—it’s Manufacturing 101.) Johnson and his gang could also try to force the reading of each amendment, if they wanted to. The Senate, and its accumulated detritus of forgotten 18th-century procedure, is theirs to do with it what they wish.
There’s a perverse logic to the otherwise pointless behavior. When the minority can’t change the outcome, all they can do is throw up arbitrary delays, in the hope it arouses controversial atmospherics. Since the relief bill is unusually popular, with Republican base energy far more devoted to the gender politics of Mr. Potato Head, they’ll feel pressured to elevate their endgame to a new level of performed horror.
Democrats don’t really care about all of these delays, though they’d prefer not to work on the weekend. And they’re pleased that the face of the charge is Johnson, who’s built a name for himself of late spreading conspiracy theories about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
“Yesterday, the Republican senator from Wisconsin, the same senator who—last summer—proudly declared that he would oppose even ‘a dime’ more in COVID relief, the same senator who spent a Senate hearing on Capitol security reading conspiracy theories into the record, and said that Jan. 6th wasn’t an armed insurrection—decided to make himself the face of Republican opposition,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in his floor remarks Tuesday.
“Still, we are delighted that the senator from Wisconsin wants to give the American people another opportunity to hear what’s in the American Rescue Plan,” he continued. “We Democrats want America to hear what’s in the plan. And if the senator from Wisconsin wants to read it, let everybody listen because it has overwhelming support.”
There are real dangers for Democrats during the open amendment process that have nothing to do with Johnson’s assortment of gags. Republican senators will try to find weak points in Democrats’ unity and offer amendments that could tempt a Democrat or two to stray from the herd. There’s been bipartisan concern that the fund for state, local, and tribal governments is too bloated, given that a lot of states aren’t in as dire a fiscal situation as once predicted. So Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, for example, is going to offer an amendment that bars states that didn’t see a reduction in revenues—which includes California, for example—from receiving any funds.
Amendments like these are why Democrats worked so hard these past few days to reach an agreement among themselves before the bill was introduced. Some last-minute changes were made, for example, to the formula on state, local, and tribal aid “that will help smaller population states and boosts the minimum they will receive,” as CNN reported. In other words, they accommodated potential dissent, making it much easier for Democrats to be united in rejecting Republican amendments.
Ron Johnson can do whatever he wants—force readings of amendments, manage his fellow senators like factory workers to keep action from stalling on the floor, wave his pants in the air to distract the clerk from reading at too fast a clip. But as long as Democrats are committed to the compromise they’ve worked out, the end result is just that the inevitable is pushed back a day.
Support Slate’s politics coverage
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Join Slate Plus to support our work. You’ll get unlimited articles and a suite of great benefits.