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Image: Senators Hold Press Availability After Weekly Policy Luncheons
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wi., speaks to members of the media as he arrives for the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon in the Hart Senate Office Building on June 30, 2020.Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images file

Why the debate on the relief bill will be shorter than the GOP hoped

Senate Republicans forced clerks to read the entire COVID relief bill. The party would've been better off, from their own perspective, forgoing the stunt.


Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) followed through on his threat last night and forced Senate clerks to read every word of the COVID relief bill out loud. The time-wasting stunt, which served no substantive purpose, had the intended effect: instead of working, the Senate halted for 10 hours and 44 minutes to indulge the Wisconsin Republican's wishes.

The Senate wrapped up its work for the day a little after 2 a.m. -- though a funny thing happened before all the senators exited the chamber.

Under the procedural rules, at least one Republican senator had to be on the Senate floor during the bill reading. If not, a Democrat would motion to end the time-wasting stunt and there'd be no objections. As a result, Johnson spent several hours on the floor last night in order to protect his pointless gambit, occasionally being relieved by GOP colleagues.

Once the reading of the bill was finished, Republicans left, satisfied that the exercise was complete and the hours had ticked by. But a handful of Senate Democrats lingered, and as USA Today noted, they got something they wanted, too.

The Senate was originally set to begin 20 hours of debate on the bill Friday, but at the end of Thursday's session, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., motioned for the chamber to reduce the debate time to three hours. With no Republicans left in the chamber shortly after 2 a.m. ET on Friday, Van Hollen succeeded.

Got that? Once Senate Republicans left. Maryland's Chris Van Hollen stuck around, asked to shrink the floor debate on the relief package from 20 hours to three. Republicans intended to use as much of the 20 hours as possible, in part to drag this out, and in part to attack the popular legislation.

But since no GOP senators were there, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who was presiding over the Senate at the time, banged the gavel and that was that.

Just so we're all clear, if Ron Johnson hadn't bothered with the bill reading, the 20 hours of debate would've started yesterday. But because of the way Senate Republicans handled the process, they'll end up wasting less time and having less debate.

The party would've been better off, from their own perspective, forgoing the stunt -- and giving the clerks a break.

As for what to expect after the truncated floor debate, senators are gearing up for something called the "vote-a-rama": a silly name for an exasperating process in which, thanks to arcane budget rules, senators can push non-binding votes on literally hundreds of politicized amendments.

Those amendments must be deemed "germane" -- which is to say, relevant -- to the budgetary process, but Republicans are preparing several hundred attempts. During the last vote-a-rama, held exactly a month ago today, the process took 15 hours.

The bill still appears to be on track for passage, but probably not until sometime tomorrow.