By Emily Goodin - 09/30/13 10:33 PM EDT
The shutdown drama in the Senate has forced junior Democrats to be on call 24/7 for shifts as the chamber’s presiding officer.
At least 10 Democratic senators rotated through the presiding chair for two-hour shifts last week as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) spoke through the night against President Obama’s healthcare law.
Other than the timing, he said, “it was no different from any presiding shift I’ve ever had. I’m on the dais pretty regularly.”
“Sen. Cruz has a prerogative to speak for however long he wants, but I thought it was an epic waste of time.”
Democrats could be spending more late nights in the presiding chair as lawmakers battle over a government-funding bill and an increase in the debt ceiling.
A presiding officer is required to be on the dais whenever the Senate is in session to ensure that the chamber’s rules are followed.
As president pro tempore, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is in charge of presiding, but it’s the junior Senate Democrats who spent most of the time in the chair as a way to give them experience in parliamentary procedure.
Normally, the shift offers a welcome break for senators. No electronic devices are allowed, and staffers are barred from approaching the dais, giving lawmakers an uninterrupted block of time to catch up on their reading and paperwork.
But occasionally the presiding officer is forced to play traffic cop.
That was the case Thursday, when Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Cruz quarreled over the timing of a vote on a government-funding bill.
Freshman Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) was presiding as the two senators argued. She banged the gavel and admonished them: “Senators are reminded to address each other in the third person, not by their first and last names.”
In a rare move, Leahy himself took the chair to gavel Cruz’s speech to a close.
“I’m president pro tem. I decided there should be some grown-ups in the chamber,” he told The Hill of his decision to preside.
Baldwin was also there in early morning hours Wednesday — 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. — during Cruz’s 21-hour floor speech.
“I like to preside,” Baldwin said to reporters after Thursday’s session.
Members of both parties presided in the Senate until 1977, when an argument about the Voting Rights Act led to a permanent change in procedure.
Democrats held the majority at the time, and then-Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) sought recognition to speak. But Republican Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) was in the chair and ignored Mansfield, disregarding a Senate precedent of recognizing party floor leaders.
The fight ended with a rule that a member of the majority party always preside.
Even though the duty falls to younger members, some senior lawmakers still take an hour or two on the dais during the week: Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), who are no longer required to preside, take a shift each.
“I preside one hour a week by choice because my class isn’t required to, but I enjoy it,” Brown previously told The Hill.
Unlike Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) filibuster in September, where there was some scrambling to fill the presiding chair, senators got a heads-up on Tuesday afternoon that they could be in for a long night.
Freshman Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who had presided during Paul’s 13-hour filibuster, took two of the overnight shifts.
Schatz had the 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. time block and said he worked in a nap to prepare. Caffeine helped as well.
“You have to have the right amount of coffee so you can get back to bed at an OK time,” he said.
Baldwin didn’t have any caffeine during her Cruz shift, but she did work in a power nap to recover.
“I napped a little bit afterward. My first appointment wasn’t until 8 a.m., so a I had a few hours,” she said.
Jeremy Herb contributed.