Friday, April 3, 2009

The Senate Amendment Parade

Well, I'm home on a Friday while Lady Strike recovers from her wisdom teeth operation (which was a success!). What better way to occupy my time than to talk about the Senate's "Vote-a-rama" yesterday. In total, the Senate took 27 roll call votes over 12 hours, each taking 15 to 20 minutes. Apparently that was "light" compared to usual budget resolution marathons. I want to give as complete of an account as I can without going crazy, so I'll only cover the interesting (controversial) amendments. To get the full list, you can enjoy this somewhat poorly designed website.

But I want to start backwards, by describing the scene at the end of the hectic day, around 11:00pm. While watching CSPAN coverage of the last amendment vote, I saw Vice President Biden walk into the chamber. My first thought was that the Democrats only had 49 votes for the budget which would have resulted in a tie (because Al Franken hasn't been seated yet, and Ted Kennedy was still sick). Vice Presidents can vote to break ties according to the constitution. Then I saw Ted Kennedy walk into the chamber, so I knew there was an odd number of Senators present.. My next thought that maybe they just brought the Vice President in for a little pomp and circumstance. Before the final vote, a slew of Senators stood up to thank the body for going through such a smooth budget process. The usually hyper-partisan Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that this was one of the easier budget vote-a-rama's he's ever taken. Next to take the floor was Republican Senator John Ensign (NV) who was like "I hate to end this Kumbaya moment..." and then asked a parliamentary inquiry as to whether the adoption of "non-germane" amendments had made the resolution "not privileged" and therefore subject to a 60 vote threshold. The usually loquacious Biden answered with a simple "yes, it is still privileged." The chamber chuckled at Biden's bluntness, and then proceeded to final passage. It seems like Vice President Biden was there to rule on the parliamentary inquiry, because otherwise that duty would have fallen upon some unsuspecting freshman Senator taking their turn presiding over the chamber.

The final vote, as we mentioned last night, was 55-43. It turned out that 92 year old Senator Robert Byrd was the only Senator not voting. My guess is that he's physically incapable of staying up past 11pm, which is understandable.

Now, to the amendments. First, I should note that 72 amendments were accepted by voice vote or unanimous consent. I won't even attempt to cover these. If Senators had insisted on roll call votes for a quarter of these, they'd still be voting right now. I think a lot of reasonable Senators also decided to withdraw amendments, because originally there had been something like 300 amendments proposed. If this were any other institution besides the United States, people wouldn't be so narcissistic and insist of political "gotcha" votes, even if it means voting on amendments to a non-binding measure for 12 hours. But alas, that's how the upper chamber goes about it's business, for better or worse (hint: worse).

Now onto the roll call votes. Here are some of the interesting ones:

1. The first vote was on an amendment to means test the Medicare Part D program, so that richer seniors would pay higher premiums. President Obama suggested this approach in his own budget outline, but I happen to strongly disagree with it. Sort of undermines the point of an entitlement program, don't you think? You won't be able to sustain political support for Medicare if rich people bolt for private insurance. The amendment failed 39-58. Only Senators Feinstein (CA) and McCaskill (MO) voted for it on the Democratic side.

2. Next, was the only full "substitute" amendment from the minority, and it came from good old John McCain. His amendment would have frozen discretionary spending, increased the military's budget, and cut corporate tax rates. Not a chance. It lost 38-60. All Democrats voted no, as did Republican Maine-erates Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. The only other Republican no vote was a curious one from conservative Bob Corker of Tennessee. I guess he has a moderate streak once in awhile.

3. There were a bunch of votes on various TARP (bailout) related measures. The most noteworthy came from Clown Senator David Vitter, who proposed a moratorium on bailout spending. The amendment failed 28-70. It did get the support of Democrats Feingold (WI-an anti-corporate crusader) and Nelson (NE).

4. The next truly interesting amendment (I skipped over a few energy-related ones) came from Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa. He proposed extending the provision that exempts middle class payers from the alternative minimum tax through 2014. Congress has ducked the issue for years by supplying temporary fixes that don't show up in yearly budget projections. Democrats (besides Nelson of Nebraska). The amendment failed 40-58.

5. Alright moving past some amendments dealing with "usury" law, we come to an amendment by Senator Bennett (R-UT) that would cut FY 2010 spending by the equivalent of what was in the economic stimulus bill. Herbert Hoover Bennett's amendment failed 42-56 with Nelson (NE) the only crossover on either side.

6. Next was the second most egregious vote of the night (the first is coming up later). This amendment, offered by Senator Wicker (MS), would allow passengers to carry firearms in checked baggage on Amtrak. This was another one of those votes where Senators were afraid of angering the NRA. What's worse is that because someone raised a point of order that this amendment was not germane, it was subject to a 60 vote threshold, and STILL passed 63-35. Guilty gun-toting Democrats: Baucus (MT), Bayh (IN), Begich (AK), Bennet (CO), Bingaman (NM), Casey (PA), Dorgan (ND), Feingold (WI), Hagan (NC), Johnson (SD), Klobuchar (MN), Kohl (WI), Leahy (VT), Landrieu (LA), Lincoln (AR), Nelson (NE), Reid (NV), Shaheen (NH), Tester (MT), Udall (CO), Udall (NM) and Webb (VA).

7. This amendment takes the cake. It almost made me think we were still in 2005. Proposed by Senators Kyl (R-AZ) and Lincoln (D-AK), the amendment would cut marginal estate tax rates by 10% and increase the exemption to all estates under $5 million. This amendment is so wrong for so many reasons. First, any estates under $3 million (99% of all estates) are not taxed at all. Therefore, the tax only hits the super wealthy. Second, Republicans and moderate Democrats have whined all week about the budget not being "fiscally responsible," but they're willing to give billions of dollars to the top 1% of families. Third, this amendment creates a deficit-neutral reserve fund, meaning that it has to be offset with cuts elsewhere. This makes me so angry. What are we gonna cut so that Donald Trump's kids can get an extra billion dollars? Public health? Education? There are two small silver linings. First, the next vote after this was an amendment from Senator Durbin (D-IL) that would prohibit estate tax cuts unless taxes were also being cut for those making under $100,000. Still bad, but at least Durbin's amendment makes it harder to push through an estate tax cut. Second, House Democrats would never support this, so it will definitely be stripped out in conference. Senate Republicans won't support the budget anyway, so why accommodate them by keeping this provision in the bill? The amendment passed 51-48, with support from the following Democrats. PLEASE call their offices if you live in one of these states and tell them that we can't afford to be giving away money to the wealthy when so many Americans are suffering.

-Bayh (IN)-not surprising
-Cantwell (WA)-unforgivable
-Lincoln (AR)
-Murray (WA)-totally puzzles me. She's usually a reliable liberal, and voted against the Iraq War. An extremely disappointing vote from her.
-Nelson (NE)
-Nelson (FL)
-Pryor (AR)
-Tester (MT)

All of these Senators (besides Nelson) voted for the Durbin amendment.

8. The last amendment I'll talk about was proposed by Clown Senator Vitter (R-LA). The amendment would prohibit welfare (TANF) money from being given to twice-convicted drug-offenders. As Senator Baucus pointed out, not only was the amendment unnecessary and meanspirited, it was a) an unfunded mandate and b) would almost certainly make the problem worse. An amendment, in my view, based on pure ideology. Luckily it was soundly defeated 79-18.

Yes, it was quite a day in the United States Senate. While I'm very disappointed in the estate tax vote, we need to put things in perspective. Both chambers of the United States Congress approved very progressive budgets yesterday.


  1. Ahhh... tuned in CSPAN early last night but missed the pictures for the last amendment vote... oh well...

    McCain: I always remember his argument on cutting corporate tax = attract more investment = more hiring. I did not buy that when he said that during the campaign. So he still proposed corporate tax cut? Not all corporate executives are greedy monsters but in reality, with real cases, cutting corporate tax = money goes to executives.

    Wicker: Thanks for pointing it out. I have no idea there's such an amendment out there. I'm pretty fed up with this amendment after reading this. First, I don't agree with the way it's being inserted as part of the budget process (relate to the Amtrak budget??). It's just the same thing that Republicans demanded to put the provision to repeal gun laws in the DC voting rights bill - the whole idea is ridiculous anyway and probably I can write an essay on that). Second, this is more personal. I take Amtrak from time to time and use Union Station nearly everyday. I just find it ironic that while passengers see security signs everywhere in the station, then there's an amendment out there that passengers are welcome to bring firearms to the station... And thanks for pointing out who voted for this on the Democrats side.

    - Angry E

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