Senate Democrats Offer a Budget, Then the Amendments Fly

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WASHINGTON -- And on the 1,448th day without one, the Senate Democrats finally brought forth a budget, and Republicans saw that was good -- but first, they made them pay.

After four years of hectoring Democrats to put their political and fiscal priorities to paper, Republicans got their wish on Friday and answered the effort with hundreds of amendments, some politically charged, others just odd, kicking off hours of laborious votes that sent the chamber into a marathon session just before spring recess.

There was the amendment thwarting regulations of greater and Gunnison sage grouse and eliminating funds to monitor the Utah prairie dog. In case a federal court ruling was not enough, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, wanted to make sure money would be there to prevent the regulation of the size and quantity of food and beverage.

Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, stood vigil against any attempt by the United Nations to register American guns. Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, went one better, demanding that the United States withdraw from the United Nations. Another amendment demanded that President Obama buy his health coverage on the new insurance exchanges being created under the new law. Still another would withhold the pay of the president's budget director if he was ever late again with a White House budget. It was approved by voice vote, without opposition.

And even if any of those were to be adopted, none of them would have any force of law. "We all know this will come to naught. The House will pass a budget. We'll pass a budget, and we'll never agree on it. There's a lot of folderol about it," said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa.

"It's a charade," said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.

After all the complaints about Democratic irresponsibility on the budget front, what unfolded Friday boiled down to spectacle, hundreds of amendments, all advisory only, and more tailored to the next campaign than to actual governance.

Even the name of the session -- the "vote-orama" -- belied how seriously senators take the exercise. "Can't hide from the vote-orama," trumpeted a statement by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, pretty much showing the whole point of it.

In truth, a Congressional budget accomplishes far less than advertised. It sets top-line limits for the Appropriations Committees to live within as they work on the real, binding spending bills, and it sometimes sets up fast-track procedures to consider changes to tax and entitlement laws. Even those two functions can happen only if the Senate and House can reconcile their budget plans, a long shot this year.

Beyond that, all the details hung onto the document are largely meaningless, ignored by the committees that actually draft legislation.

"Are there political games being played? Yes, there always will be," said Senator Tom Coburn,  Republican of Oklahoma, who had filed 66 amendments by evening.

Senators signaled widespread frustration on Friday night by adopting a nonbinding amendment, 68-31, to scrap the current budget process and start writing budgets every other year.

Most lawmakers expressed relief that finally, after so many years, the Senate was working on a budget. Its plan stands in stark contrast to the House plan that passed on Thursday. It includes $100 billion for an upfront job-creation and infrastructure program, instructions to expedite an overhaul of the tax code that would raise $975 billion over 10 years and could not be filibustered, and spending cuts and interest savings that total $975 billion, by Democratic calculations, and $646 billion in increases, by Republican accounting.

Even by Democratic estimates, the Senate plan would still leave a deficit of $566 billion in 2023, while adding $5.2 trillion to the federal debt over the next decade. The House plan ostensibly comes to balance that year.

That discrepancy did not dampen the enthusiasm.

"We're doing our jobs. We're doing the process," said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota. "Our constituents are just so happy we're moving forward on a budget."

But such big numbers seemed almost beyond the point Friday, buried in a blizzard of meaningless amendments. The term "vote-orama" officially entered the Senate lexicon in 1977, according to the Senate historian's office. By 2009, it had become ridiculous enough to prompt a hearing to demand changes. At that time, Democratic and Republican Budget Committee leaders lamented a process that had gone off the rails. In 2006, senators submitted 87 amendments. In 2007, there were 91, in 2008, 113.

This year, there were more than 500.

The main function of the vote-orama is to put senators on record on hot-button issues sure to show up in campaigns next year. Some votes were substantive, if nonbinding. On Friday evening, 62 senators -- Republican and Democratic -- voted in favor of building the Keystone XL pipeline. Democrats forced Republicans to vote on women's access to employer-provided contraceptive coverage and to state whether they supported turning Medicare into a program that hands out vouchers for the purchase of private insurance. Republicans put almost all Democrats on the record opposing an amendment to block a carbon tax.

And though advisers to the Republican senatorial committee helped coordinate some of the amendments, the chairman of the campaign committee, Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas, was not at all sure the votes would make a bit of political difference.

"I think voting records matter," he said. "But I also know the public hears explanations about votes from Republicans and Democrats, and it's hard to sort out what it really means. In the world of all this political activity and buzz, voters throw up their hands, shake their heads and say: 'All these people in Washington, D.C., are a bunch of politicians. I don't know what to believe.' "

Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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