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 Friday, and then 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 before spring recess.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., stood vigil against any attempt by the United Nations to register U.S. guns. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., went one better, demanding that the United States withdraw from the U.N. Another amendment demanded that President Barack Obama buy his health coverage on the new insurance exchanges being created under the new law. Still another would withhold the president's pay if he were ever late again with his own budget.

And even if any were to be adopted, none 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 Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "It's absolutely ridiculous."

After all the complaints about Democratic irresponsibility on the budget front, what unfolded Friday boiled down to spectacle -- hundreds of amendments, all advisory only.

Even the name of the session -- the "vote-a-rama" -- belied how seriously senators took the exercise.

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 details hung onto the document are largely meaningless bells and whistles.

"Are there political games being played? Yes, there always will be," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who had filed 58 amendments by 5 p.m.

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 Thursday.

The Senate version includes $100 billion for an upfront job-creation and infrastructure program, instructions to expedite a tax code overhaul that would raise $975 billion over 10 years and could not be filibustered, and spending cuts and interest savings that totaled $975 billion, by Democratic calculations, and $646 billion in increases, by Republican accounting.

Even by Democratic estimates, the Senate plan would still leave a $566 billion deficit 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 enthusiasm. "We're doing our jobs. We're doing the process," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. "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 main function of the vote-a-rama 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 record opposing an amendment to block a carbon tax.

Although advisers to the Republican senatorial committee helped coordinate some amendments, the committee's chairman, Kansas Sen. Jerry Morans, 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.' "



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