What to watch for in Senate budget debate on Thursday

Greg Nash

The Senate is set to vote on its 2018 budget resolution, a key step toward Republicans’ top agenda item of tax reform.

While few expect that the budget measure will have any serious problems passing, the upper chamber’s free-wheeling voting marathon that kicks off Thursday is sure to allow for drama.

The session, known as a “vote-a-rama,” is less restrictive than other amendment procedures, allowing senators to introduce as many amendments as they want on whatever subjects they like.

Here’s what to watch for as the Senate takes up the budget.


What amendments will be offered?

The vote-a-rama could hold a number of unexpected twists for the budget, despite its main purpose being to move along a special procedure Republicans want to use to pass tax reform.

Democrats already introduced three amendments on Wednesday that would have blocked potential cuts to Medicaid, shored up funds for Medicare and prevented tax cuts from benefiting the top 1 percent of earners.

They are also expected to go after rule changes in the resolution, such as a carve-out for Senate pay-as-you-go rules about the deficit that Republicans inserted to protect their tax-reform efforts and a decision to scrap the requirement for Congressional Budget Office scores to be available for 28 hours before votes are allowed. 

On the GOP side, there is little appetite to bring forward amendments that could derail the tax reform process, but fiscal hawks and defense hawks may try to force their issues. Republicans are split on exactly how much spending should go to the military and how important it is to keep the deficit down as they enact their priorities.

They could bring up amendments trying to impose fiscal restraints, spending cuts or military expenditures.

In addition, any senator who wants to force a vote on an individual issue could do so. They could file amendments on a host of other topics, such as gun control, President Trump’s tax returns or health care.


What’s the Democratic strategy?

Democrats say they don’t intend to offer “a zillion” amendments in the vote-a-rama and that the ones they do introduce will fall into four general categories: blocking cuts to Medicare or Medicaid; preventing tax breaks for the wealthy; preventing tax hikes for the middle class; and making tax reform deficit neutral.

The main thrust of the amendments are to reinforce the Democrats’ political message and force Republicans to take uncomfortable votes. But with individual Democratic members freely able to offer their own amendments, there is a question of how successfully that strategy might play out.

Democrats are locked in a series of heated battles with Republicans and the White House over priorities they need to address in the coming months, and it’s possible that some members — or even Democratic leadership — will come around to a different perspective.

For example, Democrats are determined to find a fix for young immigrants affected by Trump’s decision to rescind an Obama-era program to protect those residing in the U.S. illegally from deportation, block a push for Trump’s proposed border wall, take action on gun control, secure funding for key payments to insurers selling ObamaCare plans and shore up the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

How the Democrats’ strategy plays out through the voting session could offer a glimpse into the party’s internal divisions and whether they can adhere to a plan to promote their agenda.


Will there by any GOP defections? 

Republicans need just 50 votes to pass the budget resolution, with Vice President Pence casting a tie-breaking vote. Currently, just one of the Senate’s 52 Republicans — Rand Paul — is expected to break ranks.

Paul is demanding that spending levels stick to budgetary caps. The Kentucky Republican spent much of Tuesday feuding with fellow GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who are pushing for more military spending. 

Both dismissed Paul’s push, with McCain saying, “I don’t know anybody who pays any attention to him.” 

McCain himself, often a wild card in legislative battles, said he would vote for the resolution despite wanting more defense spending.

Paul’s expected no vote is less of a threat to the budget’s passage following the return of Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) to Washington this week. Cochran had spent weeks on medical leave in his home state.

Still, a small group of senators could plausibly threaten to derail the process unless they get their way on a certain issue, whether it be spending, defense or some element of tax reform. 


How long will it go?

Vote-a-ramas can go late into the night, and the Senate this year has proven its ability to stick around until the wee hours of the morning when a crucial issue is at stake, meaning the latest session could last well into Friday.

Tags John McCain Lindsey Graham Rand Paul Thad Cochran

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