The Senate’s vote-a-rama began shortly before 4 p.m. Friday, as former pre-school teacher Patty Murray warned her senatorial pupils about wandering off the floor.
“You leave at your own peril,” she said, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and master of these ceremonies.
Plenty wandered off anyway. The marathon voting session came, after all, on the eve of a two-week congressional recess and in the midst of the second night of March Madness basketball.
Even Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader who has mercilessly chastised Democrats for failing to put a budget on the floor for four years, admitted to splitting his attention between the floor proceedings and his home-state Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. “Sen. McConnell cheering on #WKU from the U.S. Capitol tonight in between #budget votes. #GoTopps!” his office tweeted during the game. (They lost 57-64 to No. 1-ranked Kansas.)
Senators’ shoulders slumped, tempers flared and Harry Potter even made a cameo in the congressional record as the voting dragged into the early Saturday hours.
As each roll call vote was taken, senators streamed from the sanctuary of their separate cloakrooms to cast votes for nonbinding budget amendments that ranged from the Keystone pipeline (backed by 62 senators, including 17 Democrats) to a carbon tax (overwhelmingly defeated) to instituting stricter sales tax collections on Internet purchases (it, too, passed).
By 6:30 in the evening, the second floor of the Capitol smelled of barbeque. A buffet was dished out in McConnell’s office, as Republican senators traipsed back and forth from the floor holding paper plates piled high with meat, cornbread, baked beans and salad.
For a while, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., decamped to a quiet hallway off the floor, whipping out her laptop to catch up on work. She was sure to return to the floor as the Senate took up a measure to express the chamber’s displeasure with federal subsidies for “too big to fail” banks. There was no opposition but members wanted a recorded vote anyway.
It passed 99-0 and clapping erupted -- a big Senate no-no -- in the well of the chamber. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., pointed blame at Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri. “It was Schumer,” McCaskill pleaded innocently. (Both she and Schumer had clapped.)
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, thumbed through an iPad on the floor during one of many recorded tallies, perhaps unaware that one of Senate Republicans’ favorite talking points in recent months has been that the iPad didn’t exist the last time Senate Democrats passed a budget.
At least he wasn’t making any noise. The volume on the floor kept steadily growing as Murray asked the chair to restore order. Around 10 p.m., Murray declared, “I know there is alot of March Madness going on but I’d like to keep calm on the floor.” The chamber quieted briefly before returning to the mood and noise level of a cocktail party, befitting the late Friday night hour.
Even the leaders of the Senate budget warring -- Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Murray -- stood together and laughed, at times. Just weeks earlier, Sessions had accused Murray of insinuating that he disliked poor people during a budget hearing related to welfare and food stamps.
Gillibrand was spotted showing off Friday’s New York Times, which featured a front-page story about the growing clout of women in the Senate. She flipped and pointed her colleagues to the story’s jump page, which just so happened to feature a prominent color photo of her. Meanwhile, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, sat in his chair, reading a hardcover book in his newish black-framed hipster glasses.
Around 11 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came to the floor to praise the evening’s progress. “We’re doing fine,” he said. “We’re not at carnival stage yet. Let’s proceed and try to reach this with a lot of dignity.”
None of these late-night votes had any chance of making it into law. Instead, this marathon session was all about setting policy precedents and scoring political points ahead of the 2014 mid-term elections, when the Republicans hope to take back the Senate.
Senators loosened further as the clock ticked past midnight. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, rose to oppose an amendment that defunded, in some way, a part of the president’s health care law, likening the GOP effort to tossing “Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak” over the legislation. The amendment, one of multiple attempts to chip away at the health care law during the vote-a-rama, failed by a voice vote.
Good humor was in shorter-supply around 1:30 a.m., as Republicans continued to demand more votes. Reid pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes during one exchange between Murray and Sessions. Murray pleaded with Republicans to consider the Senate’s “elderly” members.
The amendments continued unabated.
By 3 a.m., Reid and Murray demanded that senators, like unruly schoolchildren, stay seated in their desks to speed up the process.
Republicans obliged, happy to be having their say on the floor, no matter the time.
"This," declared McConnell past 4:30 a.m., "is one of the Senate's finest days in recent years."
The world's greatest deliberative body was about to pass a budget without a single vote to spare.
This article appears in the March 25, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.