- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - It’s been called the Senate’s version of water torture.

Silly, confusing and dumb, too.

Welcome to the saga that is the annual vote-a-rama, a marathon of budget amendments, voting, bad food and general disorder.

This year’s version debuted Thursday. Curtain closing to be determined.

If there’s a better way for Congress to do its most important job _ pass the federal budget _ it’s eluded policymakers.

“Today is ‘voterama,’” tweeted Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “Dumb slang term used here for votes on dozens of budget amndmts.”

Dozens? McCaskill and her colleagues should be so lucky.

By mid-afternoon, there were more than 200 amendments, potentially enough to keep the Senate voting around the clock. For three days.

“I’ve been doing this for 22 years I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a year where colleagues just seem to be absolutely insistent on having roll call votes on things that are going to keep us here a very long time,” Sen. Kent Conrad scolded, not for the first time in the day, nor the last.

“Is this really what we’re going to do to each other?” asked Conrad, D-N.D.

Apparently so.

To many, the price of this exercise is high, but worth paying.

The rules governing budget debates guarantee senators a vote on their amendments, even if the amendments stand no chance of passage. So all side are kept satisfied enough and the process sputters ahead, however tediously.

“The vote-a-rama is the Senate’s equivalent to Chinese water torture,” Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said at a hearing in February. “On the other hand, it is the opportunity for the minority to make its points.”

Schedules were cleared, food ordered, amendments read, senators voted, confusion reigned.

The Senate churned through roughly three amendments an hour, with a few minutes of debate before each vote, then a roll call. Repeat.

In fact, it looked very efficient for a chamber in which one member can block legislation and the decision on whether to even hold a vote can take days.

Trouble is, senators sometimes had no idea which amendment they were considering, what it would do or when they were voting on it.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., spent much of the day at her desk in the rear of the chamber, studiously trying to read each amendment before voting. Despite her earnestness, she couldn’t keep up.

“I would like to change my vote,” she said at one point, referring to an amendment on which she was a co-sponsor. “It was my intention to vote ‘yes’ and I voted ‘no.’”

“If we had a vote on my amendment, I missed it,” Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, said at another point. “Was there a vote?” Conrad said Bennett’s amendment had passed unanimously, without a roll call vote.

Fresh from chastising his colleagues for proposing amendments that had no hope of passing and preventing the Senate from progressing through the list, Conrad got back to business and called up several new amendments.

“Oh, we’ve done this one?” he said to an aide, who nodded. “Well this is good! We are progressing.”

Through what, though?

A considerable number of amendments had no chance of passing. Their mere airing in the full Senate allowed their sponsors to please key constituencies.

Or as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., described them at the hearing in February, “preposterous comical bomb-throwing positioning amendments” that were “too damn silly to vote on.”

Yet the vote-a-rama survived.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., refused to embrace it.

“Is it not the case,” Dorgan asked Conrad, “that most of the amendments, perhaps 90 percent …today have no real policy implications?”

Yes, Conrad replied, citing Senate budget rules.

“The truth is we all do it, we do it on both sides,” he allowed. “But I’ve got to say to my colleagues, it has run amok this year.”

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