Senators gear up for ‘vote-a-rama’ as amendments pile up

By Nick Juliano | 03/23/2015 07:24 AM EDT

Senators and their aides on both sides of the aisle are eyeing the marathon series of amendments expected to receive votes all week for opportunities to highlight their differences over climate change, energy development and environmental regulations, among a host of other policies.

This story was updated at 8:24 a.m.

Senators and their aides on both sides of the aisle are eyeing the marathon series of amendments expected to receive votes all week for opportunities to highlight their differences over climate change, energy development and environmental regulations, among a host of other policies.

Consideration of the annual budget blueprint, which is set to begin today on the Senate floor and in the House Rules Committee, occurs under a special process that welcomes a rollicking amendment debate in the Senate. The House traditionally adopts a special rule limiting its consideration to several competing budget proposals without voting on isolated amendments.


The Senate is set to take its first budget vote this evening, and consideration will likely last throughout the week. Under Senate rules, amendments brought up during the first 50 hours of debate are eligible to be debated for up to two hours apiece — time party leaders typically use to highlight their highest-profile priorities. After the 50 hours expires, amendments can still be offered and voted on without debate under the budget rules, although the Senate typically adopts a unanimous consent agreement limiting the process to a set number of remaining amendments.

Debate over the budget typically ends with a lengthy "vote-a-rama" that has senators on the floor into the wee hours of the morning considering amendment after amendment. When the Senate last considered a budget resolution two years ago, it voted on 43 amendments in an overnight session that did not adjourn until 5:22 a.m.

Hundreds of amendments will surely be filed this week, but it remains to be seen how many come up for a vote.

Amendments have to be worded in the special language of the budget resolution, which never becomes law and exists primarily to establish annual revenue and spending targets. Senators hoping to raise a policy point typically introduce an amendment proposing a "deficit neutral reserve fund" encouraging committees of jurisdiction to craft legislation addressing a particular proposal. Such language also can be included in the base text; for example, this year, Budget Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) included reserve funds related to energy production, mineral rights and wildfire-fighting, among other areas (E&E Daily, March 19).

While Senate rules require amendments to be germane to the underlying budget, senators can get creative with the "reserve fund" wording to address all manner of policy issues. That means this week in the Senate could see debate or votes on an array of controversial policies, from energy exports to climate change policy to the "Waters of the U.S." rule that would allow U.S. EPA to regulate activity around more streams and wetlands.

Details on amendment strategies were being closely held last week, but aides suggested that energy, environmental and climate change policies were likely to be addressed. The set of amendments introduced in those areas is likely to hew closely to the amendments introduced in January, when the Senate considered a bill to approve the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. Nearly 250 amendments were offered to that bill, of which about 40 received votes, including amendments related to climate change science, renewable energy, permitting requirements for oil and gas development, exports, and tax polices.

One topic from the KXL debate re-emerged last week when Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) offered an amendment during the Budget Committee markup intended to close a loophole in tax law that spares oil sands producers from paying into a spill liability trust fund. Most senators in both parties support closing the oil sands loophole, but Stabenow’s amendment also targeted other oil and gas tax breaks, winning support in committee from just one Republican, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who is up for re-election next year (E&E Daily, March 20).

A new topic likely to come up this week is EPA’s soon-to-be-finalized rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. Republicans did not address those rules during the KXL debate, although several amendments related to underlying climate change science were considered.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged state governors to refuse to comply with the rules, which require states to submit plans to hit specified emission-reduction targets by 2030 (E&E Daily, March 20). And the Kentucky Republican has long pledged to do everything he can to fight those and other rules he sees as part of the administration’s "war on coal."

A McConnell spokesman declined to detail the amendment strategy last week. But a Democratic aide said last week that rumors were circulating that he would offer an amendment aiming to block EPA from creating a federal implementation plan to impose on states that refuse to go along with the Clean Power Plan.

That amendment could be expected to come up during the first 50 hours of debate to ensure a lengthy discussion given the attention McConnell has been paying to the issue lately.

Several other senators said last week they were mulling budget amendments to advance various priorities, including Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is planning amendments to expedite liquefied natural gas exports and promote energy efficiency, and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a critic of LNG exports and a strong supporter of climate change policies who said he had not decided which priorities to pursue.

"I just haven’t concluded yet what the best one is," Markey said.