This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON – Senators call it the “vote-a-rama,” a rapid-fire series of votes on dozens of amendments to the budget resolutions that may or may not have anything to do with the government’s budget.
That’s what was happening late Thursday, Friday and possibly into Saturday’s wee hours as senators tried to finish the budget so they could leave town for their spring “work period.” More than 400 potential amendments were filed, but Senate leaders hoped to pare down the actual number of votes to 30 or so.
As the mini-debates, maneuvering and votes played out Friday, both of Missouri’s senators – Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt – were engaged in the frenzy, with markedly different levels of enthusiasm for the process.
“Vote-a-rama is what we call the vote on the budget because it is a large number of amendments that have nothing to do with the budget. And this document is advisory,” said McCaskill. “And everybody in the [Senate] knows that this document’s not going to be accepted by the House.”
Even so, McCaskill was offering – or jointly sponsoring – several amendments, on issues ranging from blocking Afghanistan infrastructure projects to reforming trade tariffs and fixing a flaw in the Medicare reimbursement system.
At the same time, Blunt – who, along with other Republicans, pushed hard for a budget bill – was offering or co-sponsoring amendments Friday opposing carbon taxes, limiting federal regulations, and making sure writeoffs can continue for charitable donations.
Blunt said it was important to “have the first budget that will be voted on in four years. And that will involve a lot of votes.” While the partisan vote splits varied widely from amendment to amendment, Democrats – who have the Senate majority – can afford only five defections on the final budget vote.
And U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Senate Democrat, was working behind the scenes to make sure they had enough votes.
But, after all the sound and fury of the “vote-a-thon,” no one expects the Senate to endorse anything like the “Ryan Budget” resolution approved Thursday by the House. That resolution seeks a balanced budget in a decade by further reductions in spending, overhauling Medicare and repealing the “Obamacare” health-care law – with no tax hikes.
“I don’t get who devised this system. It makes no sense,” McCaskill told reporters this week. “Yet this is what the American people that listen to Fox News think that we should be doing every week.”
She complained that the Senate was voting “on hundreds of amendments, most of which are messaging ‘gotcha’ amendments that both sides will offer that have nothing to do with our budget.”
However, McCaskill was quick to trumpet late Friday her successful in winning unanimous approval of an amendment aimed at encouraging states to do more to hire veterans. Her proposal "encourages states, which each have their own credentialing and licensing requirements, to adapt their standards to account for the skills and experiences gained by military servicemembers during service," her release said.
Senate rejects Ryan budget
Late Thursday, the Senate rejected, 59-40, an amendment that was, in essence, the Ryan budget plan – with McCaskill, Durbin and other Democrats opposing it – and the House had voted a day earlier (261-154) to reject the Senate’s main Democratic plan, which wouldn’t cut federal spending as much and calls for some revenue increases.
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, denounced the Senate Democrats’ budget for raising taxes and “adding another $4 trillion to the national debt.”
“A budget, at the end of the day, is a list of your priorities,” said Wagner, who represents freshmen lawmakers in the House GOP leadership. She praised the Ryan budget – which is regularly lambasted by McCaskill and most other Democrats – as “a bold and responsible plan that balances the federal budget in the next 10 years.”
What at times seem to be the alternate political universes in the House and Senate are not likely to agree on a compromise on the budget blueprint, which is advisory in any case.
“Believe me, it is not the way forward, in terms of getting our country’s spending in line and getting the compromises we need to [achieve] entitlement reform,” said McCaskill. “But we’re going to go through it. And it will quiet the incessant squeaky wheel that everything is bad because we haven’t done this is two years.”
One of the “squeaky wheels” on the budget and the separate appropriations process has been Blunt, who holds the fifth-ranking position in Senate GOP leadership. Aside from the budget votes, he was pleased that – in the continuing resolution that Congress approved earlier in the week – five major appropriations bills were approved.
“Since Harry Reid became the majority leader in the Senate, it’s been 16 months since we had a single appropriations bill on the floor,” Blunt told reporters.
“The compacted debate this week [on the continuing resolution] at least includes five of the 12 [appropriations] bills that include about 70 percent of the spending and would update the appropriations priorities for these agencies.
The continuing resolution – which will keep the government funded and operating until the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30 – does have the force of law. And one amendment that Blunt and U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, R-Ark., added (with no opposition) made clear that no federal food inspectors can be furloughed as a result of the sequester cutbacks. The amendment shifts $55 million in agriculture funds to prevent inspector furloughs.
“One of the things I’ve been working hard on is to be sure that the food safety inspectors continue to show up in our state,” Blunt told reporters.
To drive home that point, Blunt planned to visit a food plant in St. Louis on Monday. He said 10 days of furloughs for the thousands of food inspectors would cost about $400 million in economic losses.
Late Friday, the Senate approved an amendment introduced by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and co-sponsored by Blunt to encourage manufacturing innovation without adding to the deficit.
“This bipartisan amendment will bring together public and private agencies, businesses, universities, and other organizations to establish a dynamic National Network for Manufacturing Innovation,” said Blunt. “This important network of partnerships will help bolster private sector job creation and encourage more manufacturing innovation in America.”
But Blunt was less successful with another amendment that sought to eliminate estate taxes on "family farms, ranches, and small businesses." The Senate blocked it.
Blunt said such taxes were particularly harmful for Missouri, which "has more than 100,000 individual farms – the second highest number of farms of any state in the nation."
Senate approves change to Medicare
One bipartisan amendment approved Friday to the budget resolution was sponsored by McCaskill and U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. It calls for repeal of a provision of the Affordable Care Act that is causing Missouri and other states to subsidize high wages at hospitals through Medicare reimbursement rates.
“This provision has been used as a loophole to keep large amounts of money flowing to just a few states, at the expense of states like Missouri,” McCaskill said in a statement. “The health-care reform law is already working to help and protect Missouri families, but I still have a responsibility to work to improve it — and that’s exactly what I’ll continue to do.”
Under Medicare rules, a state's urban hospitals are reimbursed for wages paid to doctors and staff at least as much as rural hospitals. "Obamacare" requires that Medicare reimbursements for hospital wages come from a national pool of money, instead of from each state's allocation – meaning that any increase for one particular state results in a decrease for other states.
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Il., announced late Friday that 75 senators voted in favor of an amendment that allows states to apply sales taxes to purchases via out-of-state internet sellers.
The measure is dubbed the "Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013" and, said Durbin, "proves that an overwhelming majority of Senators support this bipartisan legislation to level the playing field for brick-and-mortar retailers. The Marketplace Fairness Act is a bill whose time has come in Congress and one that is long overdue for states, local governments and small businesses."
McCaskill calls for longer-term deficit talks
With the government now funded until the fiscal year’s end, McCaskill would like to see a return to talks with the goals of a long-term compromise to reduce the deficit.
“I’m visiting with my Republican colleagues and some of my [Democratic] colleagues,” she told reporters, “about a way forward on a grand bargain that we could really get after some means-testing in Medicare and looking at raising the cap on Social Security and doing some things that really are what we should be focused on now.”
While many Republicans want to focus on balancing the budget through spending cuts with no revenue increases, McCaskill thinks a balanced approach makes more sense, as long as an effort is made to slow the increase in entitlement costs.
“I don’t think we should (adopt) some kind of draconian austerity program. We’ve all seen how that’s worked out in Europe,” McCaskill said. “We’ve got growth in the country because we didn’t do a draconian austerity program. Our deficits are way down, we’ve reduced them by hundreds of billions of dollars, just in the last year.”
There weren’t many bipartisan votes on the budget resolution, but McCaskill said many senators on both sides still want a longer-term deficit deal.
“There is still a group of us that are looking at the big picture of the long-term debt, and the long-term viability of Medicare if we don’t make adjustments based on [financial] eligibility for complete benefits based on how wealthy you are, “ McCaskill said.
While she said the percentage increase in health care costs “has flattened out” in the last year, she thinks more can be done to further limit such increases as part of a deficit deal.
“We’re continuing to look at that,” McCaskill said. “How we can make the health care delivery system more efficient, how we can get the fraud out, how we can maintain patient choice” while preventing abuses by health insurance firms.”