In Senate triumvirate's shadow, barbecue and basketball

AP News
Posted: Mar 27, 2015 11:31 AM
In Senate triumvirate's shadow, barbecue and basketball

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Great Triumvirate of the 19th century Senate, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, peer from portraits down the hall outside the 21st century Senate, silent witnesses all.

If they noticed the pungent smell of barbecue wafting out of a nearby meeting room-turned-dinner hall on Thursday night, they gave no indication.

If they heard the senators watching television several hours later in the privacy of the cloakroom, and cheering loudly for home-state teams in the NCAA basketball tournament, there was no sign of it.

Nor when Clay's successor a couple of centuries removed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, sternly announced at 12:30 a.m. on Friday that the GOP rank and file would be having a closed-door meeting to discuss bringing the budget debate to an end.

"Half-time" cracked Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose state of South Carolina was once Calhoun's domain.

There was laughter at that inside the chamber, down the hall from a smaller room where Clay, Calhoun and Webster once debated slavery and the fate of the union.

But the joke was on him and the other 99 now serving.

By then, they had been voting non-stop for more than 12 hours in a spasm of self-indulgence known inside the Capitol as a budget "vote-a-rama." The 30 or so proposals that had been voted on since noon were far outnumbered by 670 or so remaining, but it hardly mattered.

Every one of them was non-binding, drafted as possible changes to a budget plan that was in itself non-binding. Legislating at two removes, hour upon hour in the self-styled greatest deliberative body in the world.

The routine was the same. A few minutes of debate, followed by a vote, often strictly along party lines. Sometimes 54 Republicans were in favor and 46 Democrats against. At other times 46 Democrats were in favor and 54 Republicans against.

The range of subjects that washed over the Senate was bewildering. Medicare and Social Security, of course. The voting rights of felons, paid leave, energy, the rights of same-sex couples, the fate of endangered species, the health care law, increasing the debt limit, too-big-too-fail banks and more.

No matter the vote, none of it had the force of law.

"At the rate we're going, we'll be here till 5 in the morning," McConnell announced a few hours before he yanked his members into the post-midnight meeting.

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The Democratic leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, begged to differ.

"If we go through all these amendments ... it will take 33 hours," he said. "That's just the math."

In the end, the Senate spent 15 hours holding 44 votes and passed the budget at 3:29 a.m., jettisoning hundreds of amendments to get out of town for a two-week break. They didn't formally adjourn until 4:44 a.m., after voting on other minor items.

Reid cast doubt on what was doubtless a motivating factor for senators wielding amendments — the hope of forcing a lawmaker of the other party to cast a vote so thoughtless that it could be turned into a 30-second attack ad at the next election.

"No one's election is going to be determined by what has happened here tonight," said Reid.

He made that observation, he added, as the leader of a party whose rank and file had in the past been forced to vote on "prisoners being able to have Viagra in prison."

A few hours later, Reid announced he would not seek re-election to a sixth term.