GOP stokes ‘vote-a-rama’ drama on minimum wage, immigration

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The Senate launched a marathon voting session Thursday afternoon, with Republicans eager to force Democrats into dozens of tedious and uncomfortable votes on immigration, boosting the minimum wage and dozens of other issues.

The legislative endurance run known as the “vote-a-rama” is a time-honored tradition of the reconciliation process — the budget tool Democrats will likely use to expedite passage of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan without any GOP support. Before Senate Democrats can advance that massive package, they must first pass a budget resolution to unlock instructions for a dozen committees tasked with drafting Biden’s plan.

Any senator can offer an amendment to the budget measure as part of the vote-a-rama, which has the potential to go all night. And as of Thursday, about 700 had been filed between both parties, on issues like raising the minimum wage, abortion rights, reopening schools and hiking taxes during the pandemic.

“It’s generally a free-for-all once you get into vote-a-rama,” said Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), suggesting that members may end up on cots at some point. “It just depends on the appetite for members to do this.”

“I think the Democrats chose this path, and obviously it’s not going to be an easy path,” he said. “When you go this route, you’re asking basically the other side to sort of lay down and say we’re going to run over you. And I think our members are ready to force some votes on some pretty tough amendments.”

Asked how late the amendment mayhem might go, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, “I don’t know. Usually we just keep talking until everyone collapses.”

The record for vote-a-rama amendment votes was 44 in 2008.

Not all of the amendments will be strictly partisan in Thursday’s round. A group of 16 senators is offering an amendment that would ensure $1,400 stimulus checks do not go to “upper-income taxpayers” under Biden’s massive pandemic aid plan. That effort is led by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), who have been pushing for Democrats to forgo the reconciliation track and consider the president’s stimulus proposal with bipartisan buy-in under a 60-vote threshold.

Among the hundreds of GOP amendments on deck, Republicans are eager to squeeze Democrats on a $15 minimum wage hike, a key tenet of Biden’s stimulus plan that could run afoul of so called Byrd Rule restrictions on what can be included in reconciliation legislation. Manchin already split with his party this week on the issue.

Before the vote, Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) filed an amendment that aims to block a minimum wage hike from being implemented during the pandemic. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) also filed a provision that would provide economic assistance to workers in industries like hospitality and child care, with language suggesting those workers have been laid off as a result of minimum wage increases.

“What this is guaranteed to do is destroy the jobs of lower-income people,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said of the effort to raise the minimum wage. “And guess what? A disproportionate number of them work in the hardest-hit industries like hotels and restaurants.”

In arguing against raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour, GOP lawmakers point to the closure of grocery stores this month that faced local mandates to provide $4 raises to employees during the pandemic.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during her weekly press conference on Thursday that Democrats can always pursue other avenues to hike the minimum wage if a boost is ultimately left out of Biden’s coronavirus relief package.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office outlined five major GOP priorities heading into the protracted legislative ordeal — including putting Democrats on the record about whether illegal immigrants should receive stimulus checks and whether taxes should be increased on businesses during the pandemic.

“We’re going to put senators on the record,” McConnell said on the floor Thursday. “We’ll see how our colleagues vote on these basic, commonsense steps.”

Another priority for Senate Republicans is forcing Democrats to choose sides on an amendment from Scott and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that would stop federal pandemic aid from flowing to schools that do not reopen for in-person instruction after teachers are vaccinated.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) has also offered amendments that would set aside a special pot of funding for schools that have opened for in-person instruction and require studies on the mental health effects of remote learning.

School districts throughout the country have “gladly accepted” millions of dollars in federal funding during the pandemic “but have zero plan to reopen” and have “capitulated to the teachers unions,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor before the amendment spree.

“Before we pass another multi trillion-dollar spending bill and add to our rapidly growing national debt,” the Texas Republican said, “we need to determine where the needs truly are and whether the teachers unions are on board with our goal to get children safely back into the classroom.”

Marianne LeVine and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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