May 30, 2023

WASHINGTON — A boisterous Sen. Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat who brokered the climate, health and tax deal that was on track for passage within hours, sat quietly at his office in the Senate chamber around at midnight on Saturday, staring blankly into the middle distance as he munched on M&Ms.

A triumph was almost ready on a key piece of the Democrats’ domestic agenda — but first, Mr. Manchin and his colleagues would have to pull an all-nighter, fueled by junk food and caffeine, maybe a little booze and a lot of politically charged speeches. as they debated and voted on a series of rapid-fire non-binding amendments.

Voting-a-rama (yes, it’s actually called that), a familiar but insulting ritual for the octogenarians and elders who make up the Senate, began late Saturday night and stretched into Sunday morning. It was a last chance for Republicans to try to derail Democrats’ top legislative priority — or at least mount political attacks on it on the way to passage — and a test of Democrats’ resolve to preserve their delicate compromise.

It was also the ultimate display of Senate weirdness and dysfunction — a time-consuming exercise that has little policy impact but keeps senators up all night, ending only when they run out of trying to offer more amendments. It was still Sunday noon after about 12 hours, with no concrete indication of when they would end.

“Do you know how much I’m going to miss vote-a-rama?” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania who is retiring this year. “The answer is not at all.”

The vote-a-rama is part of the arcane process, known as reconciliation, that Democrats are using to speed the sweeping climate, energy and tax package through Congress. It shields some budget-related legislation from a filibuster, allowing it to pass with a simple majority rather than the normal 60 votes needed to avoid a Republican filibuster.

But it also allows any senator to offer any proposal to change the legislation when it reaches the floor. This leads to all kinds of political labeling — in this case, just a few months before the midterm elections.

In anticipation of the theatrics, senators stocked their offices with blankets, snacks and energy drinks. Takeout food containers could be spotted all over the hallways of the Capitol on Saturday night. At 8 a.m. Sunday, more than eight hours after it began, senators slumped in their chairs and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, yawned and rubbed his eyes.

It was the fourth vote-a-rama for the current Congress, with previous episodes garnering around 40 votes each. This time, as in the past, Democrats held together to fend off Republican efforts to torpedo their bill by striking down amendments along party lines.

They included an effort to cut funding for the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. Republican senators also tried and failed to add oil and gas lease sales to some states.

In an effort to push Democrats on a politically powerful issue, Republicans forced a vote to repeal a tax on natural gas and energy companies that they argued could push the country into recession and raise prices at the pump.

Republicans managed to make one change to the bill, inserting a provision that would cap insulin prices at $35 a month. Democrats left it in the legislation even amid concern that it could violate reconciliation rules, effectively daring Republicans to demand that a popular measure be repealed and take a record vote to do so. (The action left intact the cap for Medicare patients, millions of whom have diabetes and could still benefit from it.)

Members of the Democratic caucus also used the process to make political points. Sen. Bernie Sanders, 80, the Vermont independent and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, made several motions throughout the night to express his frustration at how much the bill had been watered down.

“This could actually be the last time for a long time that people will have the opportunity to vote” on progressive issues, Mr. Sanders said Sunday morning at about 8:30, his eyes bloody after a sleepless night.

But Democrats were determined to resist the temptation to change the legislation even slightly, fearing they would lose the unanimous support of their caucus for a fragile compromise.

“This is so delicately balanced that ANY amendment, even a ‘good’ one, risks upsetting the balance – so we’re looking at a lot of ‘no’ votes on things we’d normally want,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island. , explained in a post on Twitter.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic added another element of risk to the session, up to 100 senators—the oldest class in recent history—gathered for hours to vote in a confined, enclosed space. With their slim 50-50 margin of control in the Senate, Democrats could not afford a single illness that could rob them of their majority.

“The way the Covid numbers are now, it’s possible that one of those people has Covid,” said Kirsten Coleman, assistant research professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, who noted that the event created the perfect conditions for a hyperdistributor. Event.

“I would be particularly careful because there is an older age group that is at greater risk of more serious illness if they get Covid,” he added.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, wondered aloud whether Democrats could have chosen not to test for Covid to avoid jeopardizing their bill, saying doing so for the marathon vote could have jeopardized “not only each other, but the staff members, Capitol Police, corrections staff, food service workers and countless others who keep this institution running.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 89, said she wasn’t particularly worried as she planned to wear a mask and take the necessary precautions. He added that he had been testing ahead of the weekend.

“I’m not afraid of it. We are doing the best we can,” Ms. Feinstein said.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said he resumed wearing N-95 masks last week because he “didn’t want to catch Covid and throw it away.”

But business continued as usual with lawmakers mostly uncovered huddled on the Senate floor rather than secluding themselves in their private offices, as many did in last year’s a-rama vote.

The vote-a-rama brought Sen. Patrick Leahy, 82, D-Vermont, back to the Capitol for the first time since undergoing hip surgery last month. An aide escorted the senator, who is acting president, through the Capitol in a Batman-themed wheelchair.

Senators prepared for the big night as they usually did for the vote: sleeping in and stocking their offices with comfort food and other items.

Sen. Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, said Senate floor that he had caught two hours of shut eye before the quick votes began.

Ms. Feinstein said she had prepared Mounds bars and refreshments. Senator Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, kept her favorite Atomic Fireballs in her purse for easy access. and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, made cotton candy-flavored Peeps and his state’s Hot Tamales for his staff to enjoy.

Mr. Schatz stocked his office with extra batteries for his cell phone, a hoodie, drinks “and some booze,” he said.

Emily Cochran contributed to the report.

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