WASHINGTON – After a rare all-night debate, and a frenzy of last-minute amendments that aides dubbed the vote-a-rama, the Democrat-controlled Senate adopted its first budget blueprint in four years by a one-vote margin before dawn Saturday.
The 50-49 final vote came just before 5 a.m., a dramatic legislative lollapalooza in a stately chamber chiefly populated by men and women fast approaching Medicare age. Congress now adjourns for a two-week Easter recess.
Like the far more austere Republican budget approved by the House last week, the Democratic version that passed the Senate is a partisan document that sets out the party’s vision but does not have the force of law.
The $3.7-trillion Democratic blueprint for 2014 would raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, trim spending modestly and invest new revenue to build infrastructure and tamp down the federal deficit. Under the plan, the government would still be in the red a decade from now.
Passage of the plan sets the stage for contentious negotiations with the House and the White House next month over how to reconcile the two vastly dissimilar blueprints. The GOP plan is far to the right of President Barack Obama’s views on the federal budget, while the Democratic version falls to his left.
The White House applauded the vote, saying in a statement that the plan “will create jobs and cut the deficit in a balanced way. Like the president’s plan, the Senate budget cuts wasteful spending, makes tough choices to strengthen entitlements, and eliminates special tax breaks and loopholes for the wealthiest Americans to reduce the deficit.”
The House Republican budget, the statement said, “refuses to ask for a single dime of deficit reduction from closing tax loopholes for the wealthy and the well-connected but instead makes deep cuts to education and manufacturing while asking seniors and the middle class to pay more. That’s not an approach we support and it’s not an approach the majority of the American people support.”
Republicans marked the occasion by hammering Democrats for finally passing a budget after four years.
“It’s about time,” said a one-line news release from the House GOP whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California.
“While there are clear areas of disagreement about how to strengthen our economy and restore our nation’s fiscal health,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Budget Committee, “this was a productive conversation and one I hope we can build on in the coming weeks.”
Extra supplies were brought into the Capitol late Friday – wood for the fireplaces on a chilly spring night, packaged meals for the take-out shelves – as senators hunkered down for a long night.
Under Senate rules, the budget debate gave senators an unusual opportunity to offer an unlimited number of amendments to debate. And they did.
More than 600 amendments were filed on the bill, from the lofty to the parochial. They included proposals to de-fund new health care laws, to restrict potential surveillance by domestic drone aircraft and to prevent a Western bird called the sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species.
Senators presented their issues in rapid-fire fashion and then called for a vote. The usually lonely Senate floor was filled with senators and aides. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., had suggested 66 amendments by the time the sun set Friday.
The lawmakers began the long night knowing only that the final budget vote would come when they had finished all the others.
As the night wore on, senators were essentially trapped on the Senate floor waiting for the final vote. Murray warned her colleagues, many of whom also had an avid interest in the March Madness basketball games, not to stray too far.
“You leave at your own peril,” she said.