With the failure to get enough votes to pass the Plan B legislation on the Fiscal Cliff, the House went on recess for the Christmas holiday on Thursday. The Senate, however, stayed until the end of Friday, December 22nd to work on H.R. 1 (House Resolution 1), the legislative vehicle for the emergency supplemental funding to address the damages from Hurricane Sandy. This bill has a House designation rather than a Senate designation because all funding legislation must originate in the House. The first ten numbers for bills in each chamber are reserved at the start of any given Congress for the most important legislation, so H.R. 1 indicates that this bill has the highest priority of any bill in the past two years.
On the Senate floor, when no business is occurring and no one is asking to be recognized, the last person to speak ends by saying, “Mister (or Madam) President, I suggest the absence of a quorum.” The presiding officer follows up by saying, “The Clerk will call the roll.” The Clerk starts, “Mr. Akaka…” since he is first alphabetically, although the rest of the roll does not get called out loud. At this point, C-Span goes silent, the screen says, “Quorum Call” two buzzers sound in the Senate Office Buildings, and the clock faces throughout those buildings show two white lights. This condition can last for a prolonged period, during which it might appear that nothing is happening and there is no business being done. This past week, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Although I am not involved, I understand that a considerable amount of work goes into brokering an agreement that will bring a bill to the Floor. On Wednesday, Majority Leader Harry Reid had filed cloture on H.R. 1. I’ll note that there had been no indication of a filibuster threat; filing cloture was intended to expedite the process overall. Since cloture requires 3/5 of the votes, the Republicans must be on board to at least talk about H.R. 1 in general, and that gives them leverage about what amendments might be considered, how many votes will be required to pass each amendment, time for debate, etc. The cloture vote is taken two days after filing for cloture, so the long quorum calls on Thursday concealed extensive negotiations about how to proceed prior to the actual vote. Remember that Unanimous Consent can dramatically speed the process, but everyone must agree to it.
On Friday morning, we got word that the cloture vote would be held in the afternoon, indicating that both parties had agreed to move forward. (If they weren’t all on board, it probably would have been moved up, and we all would have gone home earlier.) When I saw on C-Span that the vote was starting, I looked at my new fellow Bennet Fellow (she’s not in my program, but we are kindred Fellows), and asked, “Do you want to go watch?” My latest personal goal has been to learn my way around the Capitol, so I knew I could reliably find the Senate gallery. My fellow Bennet Fellow was game, so off we went. Scooting over to the Capitol is one considerable advantage of having an office in the Russell Senate Office Building since we are closest to the action and have the shortest distance to travel. As Senate staff, we also were allowed to go into the staff gallery rather than the visitors’ gallery, which gave us an outstanding view of the action.
One of the important considerations for our visit to the Senate gallery was that there were actually two back-to-back votes. The House votes electronically and often by proxy, which I believe involves giving someone else your ID to place your vote. The Senate still carries out roll call votes, known as the “yeas and nays,” in person. When doing a single vote, the Senators have a 15 minute window to show up and indicate their votes. With two back-to-back votes, they stay on the floor until the second vote starts so they don’t have to run back and forth. As a result, there were many more Senators on the Floor than usual. I spent my time seeing how many Senators I could identify by face. I’ve got all 17 women sorted out pretty reliably, and I know a fair number of the male Democrats, but I have a lot of work to do before I can recognize everyone. I enjoyed watching the various conversations and learning who sits where. It was far more dynamic to watch the process live rather than on the TV.
Now to explain the title of this post. The cloture vote passed, and by Unanimous Consent, a list of amendments was given to be considered in a specific order, with a specified amount of debate allowed on each one, and with an understanding that any amendment will require 60 votes to pass. Thus on Thursday, December 27th when the Senate returns from a very short Christmas break, there may be up to 21 votes taken on that single day starting at about 1:00 in the afternoon. This rapid-fire amendment voting is referred to as a vote-a-rama, and it makes the staff go a little crazy.
For each and every vote, a Senator’s staff prepares a voting recommendation that includes a quick summary of the issue, the arguments in favor and against, how the amendment might influence the state constituents, how the other Senator from the state and fellow committee members might vote, and anything else that seems relevant, culminating in a YES or NO recommendation. So every one of those 21 votes requires a significant amount of work on the part of the staff, and the timeline is often very short. December 27th will be especially challenging since the offices will only have a skeleton staff, so all the voting recommendations needed to be completed in advance. In our office, the work generally gets shared around and everyone pitches in to help, so I’m sure our Senator will be quite well prepared.
Merry Christmas, everyone, and there will be much more to look forward to in the 113th Congress! Yes, I could just say, “See you next year,” but where’s the fun in that?