Silly Season Arrives in the Senate As Major Legislation Advances

Chuck Schumer has miles to go before the Senate can take its August recess. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There is nothing politically vulnerable senators loathe more, or Senate challengers love more, than “messaging” amendments offered to must-pass legislation. The idea is to devise amendments that put those in the opposing party in a difficult position, and then get their votes recorded for future use in demagogic campaign ads that rip them out of context. Occasionally, a serious effort will be made by opponents of the underlying measure to offer an amendment that will make the bill repugnant to its own sponsors; that is known in the legislative biz as a “poison pill.” But more often than not, it doesn’t matter whether such amendments pass; it’s enough to offer them, get a clip in the can of their sponsors agitating the air over them, and then leave the rest to the dark wizards of campaign warfare.

As the Senate tries to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a Fiscal Year 2022 budget resolution before its planned August recess, it’s the high silly season for “messaging” amendments. A prime example will come up today thanks to the fine legislative craftsmanship of Senator Ron Johnson, as Punchbowl News reports:

The Senate will vote at 12:15 p.m. today on an amendment to the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that would prohibit the Biden administration from canceling border-wall contracts.

This amendment was offered by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), and is certain to fail. Johnson has offered this amendment previously on other legislation, and it was voted down by Democrats, so we don’t expect any different outcome here.

There will be a lot of such nonsense as the infrastructure bill is “debated,” and the big question is how many amendments Chuck Schumer will have to entertain without losing Republican support before moving for cloture on final passage of the bill that is the apple of Joe Biden’s (and Joe Manchin’s) eye. While some amendments will be offered by Republicans who plan to vote for the measure in order to make this or that gesture to this or that constituency, others are purely malicious. Separating friendly sheep from hateful goats among proposed amendments is a big part of Schumer’s job.

Schumer has vowed to get the infrastructure bill passed by week’s end or early next week, so he’ll probably need to file for cloture in the next day or two. But the next big cookie on the plate will generate even more “symbolic” (i.e., unserious) amendments.

It is almost certain that the FY 2022 budget resolution will pass the Senate with 50 Democratic votes and zero Republican in favor. The 50 Democratic votes will likely be accompanied by floor speeches from “centrists” like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (who is already making such noises) vowing to vote against any budget reconciliation bill that actually spends the $3.5 trillion called for in the budget resolution, and from progressives vowing to vote against anything less (or perhaps demanding a lot more).

But that will be just the tip of the hortatory iceberg, thanks to the budget process device known as the “vote-a-rama,” which I tried to explain earlier this year:

[An] annoying but basically pointless byproduct of the budget process [is] a period of unlimited amendments that can be offered before either a budget resolution or a reconciliation bill receives a final vote in the Senate. The staffer who came up with the term “vote-a-rama” for this ritual defined it thusly: “vote-a-rama: (n.) an extended sequence of back-to-back votes in the United States Senate. A side effect of special rules for considering the budget resolution or a reconciliation bill, a vote-a-rama may last 10, 20, 30 hours or more, and occurs after all time for debate has expired but before a vote on final passage.

We’ve already gone through this process twice this year, on the FY 2021 budget resolution and the subsequent reconciliation bill, which enacted President Biden’s COVID-19 stimulus and relief bill (a.k.a. the American Rescue Plan). They didn’t get a lot of attention, since vote-a-ramas are scheduled to occur when most decent people are asleep or having a life. The definitive comment on the empty ritual was offered to Politico by Senator Brian Schatz:

“We need to remember what this is all about. This is not about a goofy 10-hour or 12-hour or 15-hour process where we stack amendments and try to set each other up, that we’ll somehow trick someone into taking a bad position that can be turned into a campaign advertisement,” Schatz said on the Senate floor. “It is nonsense, and everybody should ignore it if they can. Do anything to not watch vote-a-rama.”

When it ends and the budget resolution passes, aficionados of what Schatz also called “the worst part of the United States Senate” will only have to wait for the next vote-a-rama, which will precede passage of the next reconciliation bill in September.

Yes, the air in Washington will be hot during the dog days just ahead.

Silly Season Arrives in Senate As Major Legislation Advances