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Senate Democrats brace for long night passing budget plan

Lawmakers take full advantage of the opportunity to draw up unlimited amendments, as aides stock shelves with food. The budget will serve as a counterpart to the House Republican plan passed earlier this week.

March 22, 2013|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • A Senate aide delivers a stack of documents to be used as a prop during debate on the chamber's budget proposal.
A Senate aide delivers a stack of documents to be used as a prop during debate… (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — Democrats in the Senate were poised Friday night to pass a 10-year budget blueprint, but not without a late-night vote-a-rama — a free-for-all frenzy of amendments.

Like the austere Republican budget passed this week in the House, the Democratic version in the Senate is a partisan document that sets out the party's vision, but does not have the force of law. It would raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, while investing the new revenue to build infrastructure and tamp down the deficit.

The two proposals will serve as calling cards in continued talks with the White House over a deficit-reduction plan. The GOP plan stakes out a position far to the right of President Obama's views on the budget, and the Democratic one falls to his left.

"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.), chairwoman of the Budget Committee, "this was a productive conversation and one I hope we can build on in the coming weeks."

Additional supplies were brought into the Capitol late Friday — packaged meals as well as wood for the fireplaces on a chilly spring evening — as senators hunkered down to vote into the night.

Under Senate rules, the budget debate offered senators an unusual opportunity to draw up an unlimited number of amendments to offer. And they did.

More than 400 amendments were filed, from the lofty to the parochial, including proposals to defund the nation's healthcare law, restrict domestic drone surveillance and prevent the sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species.

One senator, Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), came up with 66 amendments by the time the sun set in the capital.

Senators in rapid-fire fashion presented their issues and then called for a vote. The usually lonely Senate floor was filled with senators and aides. The lawmakers began the debate knowing that the final vote would come only once they had nothing left to say.

Republicans celebrated the day, hammering Democrats for not passing a budget for four years. "It's about time," said a one-line news release from House GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.

Earlier in the day, senators dispatched several key amendments.

They tossed aside the House GOP budget drafted by Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, which calls for deep cuts to the social safety net, including Medicare, and achieves balance in 10 years. Five GOP senators defected on their party's defining document.

Senators also tanked a proposal that would require a balanced budget, largely along party lines.

Several GOP ideas to block money for Obama's signature domestic achievement, the healthcare law, fell by the wayside on party-line votes. Democrats on Friday celebrated its third anniversary. But an amendment to halt the law's tax on medical devices won bipartisan approval.

Women's issues benefited from the exercise, as Republicans showed no interest in fighting Democratic proposals designed to ensure equal pay and reproductive care. Both were approved.

And the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico, drew broad bipartisan support.

By late Friday, senators were essentially trapped on the Senate floor. 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.

In the end, the votes will amount to little more than political messages to show where the Senate stands on certain issues — and to provide fodder for campaigns targeting senators up for reelection.

Although the shape of the senators' final budget plan was unclear, one outcome was guaranteed: a paycheck.

Failure to approve budgets would have suspended pay for lawmakers. House Republicans slipped the provision into law earlier this year to goad Democratic senators into presenting their own budget proposal — and saving their $174,000 annual salaries.

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