Bizarre day on Capitol Hill: Senate bends the rules, breaks a record

Posted at 9:31 AM, Jun 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-28 16:07:09-04

At 5:00 a.m. Friday, with the moon still beaming over Washington, the Capitol buzzed with activity.

The subway trains that connect the Senate office buildings to the Capitol hummed. Elevator operators stood by the “Senators Only” elevators, waiting for riders.

Bleary-eyed senators arrived at the Capitol for an unusual session that ultimately became the longest vote in modern history. It was all so the four Democrats who were on the presidential debate stage in Miami Thursday night — Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — could return to Washington to vote. But also, so the remaining senators — anxious to get home for the Fourth of July recess — could leave as soon as possible.

Acceding to Democratic demands to hold the vote Friday, GOP leaders twisted and turned normal procedures and practices to make the session work. That meant convening before sunrise (on a day they were supposed to be gone), allowing Democrats to preside over the chamber (rather than Republicans), keeping the vote open for a record-breaking length of time (rather than the usual half hour or so), and agreeing that, if the amendment were to pass, it would retroactively be added to a defense authorization bill that had passed the Senate the day before (which is practically unheard of).

Everyone also knew the amendment, which would require President Donald Trump to get congressional approval before launching military strikes against Iran, was not going to get the 60 votes it would need to advance. But the measure is a top priority and serious issue for Democrats who pressed GOP leaders to schedule the vote regardless of the outcome.

At 5:01 a.m., the Senate chaplain, Rev. Barry Black, led a prayer and Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican of Wisconsin, who was the first presiding officer of the day, led the Pledge of Allegiance.

At 5:02 a.m., as high school-aged Senate pages working on the last day of their term looked on, the voting started. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democratic leader, cast the first vote and bolted.

Outside the Capitol, several senators arrived in clothes more suitable for flying home than working in the typically buttoned-down Capitol. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, arrived in a green polo shirt. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, wore red flats and a blazer. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Republican from Mississippi, pulled a suitcase into the Capitol with her. Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden was in such a hurry he jogged into the building, so he could quickly vote and race to the airport.

Sen. Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN he was surprised an amendment could be added to a bill that had already passed.

“All the time I’ve been here, I’ve never seen them run an amendment to a bill after it’s passed. Didn’t even know you could do that, but apparently there are a lot of little rules buried in there,” he remarked.

At 10:18 a.m., the vote became the longest running vote in modern history, surpassing a 2009 vote that was held up for Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, to return from his mother’s funeral and vote for President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus bill.

At 10:33 a.m., Sen. Josh Hawley, a newly elected Republican from Missouri, presided over the quiet chamber. He surprised the clerks and parliamentarian, when suddenly he leaned forward to his microphone and started to declare the vote over.

“Are there any senators in the chamber who are wishing to vote or change their vote?” he boomed.

Reporters in the press gallery above him gasped, thinking there were still several hours to go before the gavel went down.

Hawley was joshing. He laughed and went back to his reading.

Just after 11 a.m., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, replaced Hawley as the presiding officer.

It’s very rare for a member of the minority party to control the gavel. The Senate Historian’s Office said the last record they have of that happening was briefly in 2009 but that it was common practice for the parties to share the presiding duties until mid-1970s.

The four Democratic presidential candidates showed up over time. First was Sanders at 12:35 p.m.

Just after 2:00 p.m., Harris and Gillibrand arrived together.

Bennet was the last when he voted at 3:10 p.m.

Harris, who many pundits declared the winner of the debate, beamed as she was approached on the floor by several pages. They smiled and shook her hand, treating her like sudden rock star.

As she left the Capitol, she declined to answer reporters’ questions.

“I really can’t. I have to catch a flight,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

At 3:10 p.m. the vote was called. The vote lasted 10 hours and eight minutes, nearly doubling the length of the 2009 vote.

Democrats got 50 votes for their amendment, but it needed 60 to pass. Forty Republicans voted no.