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Senators Endure Vote-A-Rama With Coping Mechanisms


What a day to be a senator. At about 3:30 this morning, the Senate passed a Republican-sponsored budget resolution that calls for trillions of dollars in cuts to domestic spending. Before they got there, senators spent 18 hours slogging through more than 40 amendments. None of what they did is binding. Senators call the annual marathon vote-a-rama, and NPR's Ailsa Chang was there.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mr. Tillis, aye, Ms. Hirono, aye, Mrs. Fisher, aye.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Don't be fooled. The buzz of senators in the chamber late into the night is not lawmaking in action. This is vote-a-rama, an exercise in fighting off fatigue and boredom as senators vote on dozens and dozens of budget amendments. Every senator has a coping mechanism, even the first timers, like Republican Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who says you just need a good distraction, like basketball.

SENATOR SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: West Virginia plays at 10 o'clock tonight against Kentucky, so I'm certainly going to be up for that (laughter).

CHANG: For Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy it's about dreaming of recess just around the corner.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: I try to think about my wife and I get away for a few days next week. I think about that.

CHANG: And for Democrat Tom Carper of Delaware...

SENATOR TOM CARPER: Power naps, actually they work, so...

CHANG: Where's your power nap cot or couch?

CARPER: There's a sofa in my office.

CHANG: All the energy spent this night is for a budget that, remember, doesn't have the force of law. Congressional budgets are nonbinding vision statements. So votes on amendments to a budget are just expressions of feeling on things like the minimum wage or the nuclear talks with Iran or paid sick leave. As they vote, senators know the point of this night is to force each other to go on the record so political ads can target them months later.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN THUNE: You're always thinking about, oh, that's a terrible ad (laughter).

CHANG: Republican John Thune of South Dakota.

THUNE: So I think you just have to say that's the way it is, and we came here to cast out votes.

CHANG: Thune says the whole thing is bizarre, but it has some usefulness. Past vote-a-ramas have revealed unexpected bipartisan support for certain policy ideas, like letting states collect sales taxes on online purchases or repealing the medical device tax under the health care law. Of course, Thune says it's easier to vote yes on something that isn't going to become law.

THUNE: You know, we got 80 votes for the medical device tax repeal. And the last time we did the vote-a-rama, which, if we actually had that vote on the floor when it really counted, I'm guessing it would be a lot - it'd be a big drop off.

CHANG: But there's one thing you can count on during vote-a-ramas - senators are stuck hanging out with each other for hours and hours. Carper of Delaware says that hardly ever happens these days.

CARPER: There's a great opportunity to communicate and sometimes to find compromises.

CHANG: In fact, Carper says he spent some of Thursday afternoon brainstorming on the floor with Republicans about a bill on border security. And as for dinner that night, Republicans were buying - a rare moment when both sides would be eating in the same room. But by 9:30 last night, patience had started to wane. Minority Leader Harry Reid made a plea.


REPRESENTATIVE HARRY REID: I know that their Republican leader bought dinner tonight and I appreciate that very much. But I - if we can finish here by 11:30, I'll buy dinner when we get back and it'll be better than that.

CHANG: Such wishful thinking - 11:30 came and went, and it was clear senators had no interest in cutting votes short for a free dinner. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

INSKEEP: And we have some news this morning about the man you just heard. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has announced that he will not seek another term in the Senate in 2016. So he will be done with late night dinners and late night votes in a little less than two years. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.