Senate Passes Budget After Late-Night 'Vote-A-Rama'

It took until the wee hours of this morning, but the United States Senate has passed a budget for the first time in four years. But before senators could vote on the budget itself, they had to work their way through dozens of amendments, in a process known as "vote-a-rama." Host Scott Simon talks to NPR's Tamara Keith, who was following along.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Here's a newsflash. Just in: the U.S. Senate has passed a budget for the first time in four years.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The senator from Virginia, Mr. Warner, proposing Amendment number 693. The senator from South Dakota, Mr. Thune, proposes Amendment 307. The senator from Vermont, Mr. Sanders, proposes Amendment 198. The senator from North Carolina...

SIMON: But before senators could vote on the budget itself, they had to work their way through dozens of amendments in a process known as vote-a-rama. NPR's Tamara Keith has been following along, and joins us. Tamara, thanks for being with us.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: And let's begin with the budget. Remind us what's in the budget, how close was the vote?

KEITH: Congressional budgets are vision documents. So, this one laid out Senate Democrats' ideas about taxing and spending. It raises about a trillion dollars in taxes and cuts an equal amount of spending. It replaces the meat cleaver cuts of the sequester and even adds $100 billion in basically stimulus spending. So, this is basically the polar opposite of the House budget. And for some red state Democrats, it was a tough vote because they're up for re-election in two years and they're voting to raise taxes. And that's why the final tally was so close. It was 50 to 49, with four of those Democrats voting no.

SIMON: We use that phrase vote-a-rama and I hope you can explain that to us. It sounds a bit like a roller coaster ride, and I guess it is. All right. How many amendments did senators wind up voting on?

KEITH: Well, they offered more than 550 but they only voted on about 70 of them. There was clearly some pent-up demand. Here's Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray near the start of the vote-a-rama.

SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: We are not going to let votes go over. If you're not in the chamber you're going to miss votes. We have got to be able to do this in order to move ahead expeditiously.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Senate will come to order.

MURRAY: So, I would just let all senators know: you leave at your own peril.

SIMON: No bathroom breaks, huh?

KEITH: Well, they could slip out for that. But because of Senate rules, senators can offer an unlimited number of amendments. The only way to make it stop is to get them to agree to stop. So, around 8:30 last night, a seemingly tired Majority Leader Harry Reid came to the floor with a warning for his colleagues.

SENATOR HARRY REID: Senators are going to have to understand this is not going to go on forever.

SIMON: What about the range of what the amendments cover?

KEITH: You know, you name it. These are all non-binding amendments, so these were all message votes. And so they wanted to get their colleagues on record on all kinds of things. Here's a very incomplete list: death tax, a.k.a. estate tax; out-of-state abortions; school choice; popular one, Keystone XL pipeline - that comes up a lot; and actually it passed with Democratic support. And the great thing though is that one talking point we hear again and again and again is coming to an end. Republicans have gone to the floor of the Senate every day and said it's been 1421 days since the Senate passed a budget. And as things were wrapping up last night, Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions gave the new tally.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: It is good to say that as of this time, 5 A.M., there has not been a day without a budget being passed in the United States Senate.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: So, quickly, Tamara, it's going to be hard to reconcile the House and Senate budgets, isn't it?

KEITH: Oh, pretty much impossible. And, you know, we're actually still waiting for the president's budget, which will offer a third vision about taxing and spending. You know, the real budgeting happens in the appropriations process. And the news that didn't get as much attention this week is that the Senate and House approved a continuing resolution to keep the government funded through the rest of this year. And there will be no government shutdown. On to the next fight.

SIMON: NPR's Tamara Keith. Thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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