For spectators, it may be the most entertaining tradition in the U.S. Senate. The members either pretend to hate it or actually do, but the stories that come out of vote-a-ramas are legendary. Quirky and humanizing, the political all-nighters are painful for both parties, but they always seem to produce funny anecdotes like back-room poker games, stealth happy hours, regional food wars, and coffee -- lots of it. There are the iconic images -- like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) throwing pepperoni rolls at reporters in 2015 or the parade of mattresses wheeled in for sleepy senators in 2017. To everyone, it's about survival -- which usually means calories, caffeine, and cots.
It's been four years since senators endured the grueling procedure. "The public hazing is Senate tradition," Politico explains, "the price the majority party pays to approve a budget resolution" with a simple majority (51 votes) instead of the usual 60. It's how liberals rammed through Obamacare in 2009, and how the Republicans won the Trump tax cuts in 2017. This time around, Democrats resorted to the strategy in hopes of passing Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID package without a single Republican vote. If that meant staying up until almost 6:00 a.m. (a record!) and debating over almost 900 amendments, they were willing to face that grind.
"Democrats chose this path, and obviously it's not going to be an easy path," Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) warned. "When you go this route, you're asking basically the other side to lay down and say we're going to run over you. And I think our members are ready to force some votes on some pretty tough amendments." Unlike other legislative business, senators can offer an unlimited number of amendments without worrying about filibusters. That usually means the minority takes the opportunity to make a political point -- or force the other party to cast a vote on an uncomfortable issue.
On Thursday night (and into Friday morning), Republicans went on the offensive, introducing one proposal after another to put Democrats on the record on the border wall, the Keystone pipeline, illegal immigration, abortion, school re-openings, tax hikes, and more. "If we're to debate this phony partisan budget, we will create some clarity for the American people," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday, "We're going to put senators on the record."
None of the votes are binding -- but they do send some interesting signals on where the COVID plan might be headed. There were flashes of bipartisan agreement -- like the amendments that would stop illegal immigrants from getting stimulus checks or limiting those payments to hurting families. One area where there wasn't agreement, amazingly, was saving newborn babies. In a sign of just how radicalized the Democratic Party has become, Senator Ben Sasse's (R-Nebr.) attempt to give medical help to tiny abortion survivors only won over two Democrats -- Senator Manchin and Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.)
Before the vote, Senator Sasse tried to explain how mainstream the proposal should be. But, as we've learned through the last two years of unconscionable votes, nothing is too inhumane for the Left.
"Mr. President, we're doing a lot of red vs. blue jersey stuff today until about 2:00 a.m. It's going to be mostly straight, partisan votes. It'd be good for us to find some common ground and this amendment is an opportunity to do that. This amendment, modeled on the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, is an opportunity to come together and to defend babies. It's pretty simple actually. Every baby -- whether she's born in a state-of-the-art hospital with a NICU unit or whether she's born in an abortion clinic in a strip mall -- every baby is born with dignity and is created in God's image and she deserves care."
When it failed, Sasse could only shake his head. "Protecting newborns ought to be the easiest thing in the world... isn't about abortion, it's about human rights. I am going to continue to fight for these babies because love is strong than power and we will win."
Whether Democrats will win is anyone's guess. After Sasse's amendment, Democrats showed their extreme stripes, voting against an amendment on religious freedom. Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.) offered a blanket protection of churches and other houses of worship after a year of harassment, fines, and other punishments during the lockdown. This country, Lankford insisted, should never restrict the First Amendment -- regardless of the raging COVID debates over the last year. "All that this [amendment] is asking is that we treat faith-based entities the same as we do secular industries. It's not asking for special treatment. It's saying if you treat a bar one way -- then a block away, you have to treat a synagogue the same way." Thanks to Manchin crossing over to vote with Republicans, it passed 51-49.
Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) tried another tactic: protecting men and women of faith "in employment, commerce, social services, faith and community partnerships, or in access to housing, health care, or education." Not one Democrat could bring themselves to stand up for the free exercise of religion, and it failed 50-50.
Unfortunately for the Left, surviving vote-a-rama is just the beginning. After that, they'll have to prove to the parliamentarian that every piece of their $1.9 trillion monstrosity passes the budget sniff test. If they can manage that -- which both sides can tell you is no easy task -- Democrats still have to persuade every single member of their party to vote for it. "The biggest challenge that the Democrats have is staying united. They can't help themselves," Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) said. "That's gonna be their problem. Get a bag of popcorn, because it can be interesting watching the Democrats fight within themselves."
And fighting, most Americans will tell you, is the last thing this country needs -- on either side.