The Senate was hard at work into the early hours of Friday morning as lawmakers waded through a marathon series of votes on amendments to the chamber's budget resolution, a process which has come to be known as "vote-a-rama."
Former National Economic Council Director Keith Hennessey claims credit for coining the term. He was a Budget Committee staffer at the time, and he explains on his website that the vote-a-rama is a byproduct of Senate rules that demand that any senator be allowed to offer amendments to a budget resolution. Not all of them will be debated during the hours set aside for debate, he says, but they will be voted on in stacked votes after debate time has expired. The vote-a-rama can go on for 10 or 20 hours, or even more.
Senators deluge the vote-a-rama with amendments because they can. The non-binding measures are passed by a simple majority, so there's no filibustering, no stalling, and ample opportunity to make a political point.
On Thursday, many of the amendments deal with weighty matters, targeting priorities that both parties have advanced as the 114th Congress hits its stride. Although they were attached to the budget resolution (also non-binding) the amendments could have a real impact on the political contours of the remainder of the legislative session. From Obamacare to defense spending, immigration to entitlement reform, Iran sanctions to relations with Russia, nothing is off the table. The votes members cast could also resonate into 2016, as potential candidates (most of them on the GOP side) seize the opportunity to position themselves.
But among those hundreds of amendments, there will also be plenty designed merely to make a point. With that in mind, here are a few of the more obscure items that were filed to the bill:
Hatch doesn't want kids eating pot brownies
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, pushed a "high"-stakes amendment in this year's marathon vote-a-rama session. Amendment 534 aimed to prevent "access to marijuana edibles by children in states that have decriminalized marijuana."
"I introduced this amendment because marijuana edibles are extremely dangerous to children. They resemble candy or other sweets, and unsuspecting children can easily ingest them without knowing what they are," Hatch said in a statement to CBS News. "And because they're highly potent, even small amounts of marijuana edibles can make children very, very sick. Ingesting a single marijuana-laced brownie can put a child in the hospital."
With this proposal, the Utah senator, who has made a habit of attaching prohibitive cannabis amendments to unrelated laws, seemed to be going against the grain of recent legislative pushes meant to easing marijuana restrictions. Just this week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House introduced a bill that would reclassify the drug as a Schedule II narcotic and thereby allow its production and sale for medicinal uses. And earlier this month, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, introduced a similar bill in the upper chamber.
Seventeen states, along with the District of Columbia, have passed legislation decriminalizing marijuana. And despite DEA warnings of stoned fauna if Utah adopts such legislation, a Republican senator in Hatch's home state is also pushing for the state to relax its laws on cannabis. Utah state Sen. Mark Madsen introduced a bill last month aiming to allow edible marijuana use for patients with debilitating illnesses.
Stabenow takes a stab at the GOP's Iran letter
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, introduced an amendment on Wednesday that would prevent members of Congress from purchasing "stationary [sic] or electronic devices" to communicate with foreign governments to undermine "the role of the President as Head of State in international nuclear negotiations on behalf of the United States."
The amendment is an apparent jab at Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, who authored a letter earlier this month warning Iran's leaders that any nuclear agreement they reach with the U.S. and other world powers would likely be short-lived. "The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen, and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time," Cotton wrote in the letter, which drew 46 additional GOP signatories.
The incident drew fierce condemnation from Democrats, who accused the freshman senator of trying to usurp the president's authority to conduct foreign policy. The U.S. and Western nations are seeking a deal that would roll back economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for the ability to verify that the Iranian nuclear energy program is being used for peaceful purposes.
Ernst thinks lawmakers should fly coach
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, thinks members of Congress should be forced to fly coach like the rest of us plebeians. The freshman senator introduced an amendment to prohibit "the use of taxpayer dollars for first class airplane travel by members of Congress."
In a statement, Ernst said the amendment, along with several others she offered, underscores her "commitment to Iowans to cut wasteful spending and be vigilant with taxpayer money."
"Although there are certain restrictions currently in place, it is important that Congress honor a commitment to spend taxpayer money wisely and not flying first class is just plain common sense," a press release on her website explained.
The issue of members' taxpayer-financed travel was thrust into the news recently by Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Illinois, who will resign from Congress at the end of this month amid an investigation into of his use of taxpayer and campaign money to fund private air travel.
Thune wants you to eat red meat
Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, was concerned when the Dietary Guidelines Advsisory Committee removed "lean meat" from their list of foods in a healthy diet. That was a big bite to take from a state with 3.65 million head of cattle.
"The report suggests that dietary patterns with positive health benefits are described as high in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts and moderate in low- and non-fat dairy products. Dietary patterns with positive health benefits are also described as lower in red and processed meat," Thune and 29 senators, nearly all Republican, wrote in a letter to the secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services earlier this month. "Unfortunately, this statement ignores the peer-reviewed and published scientific evidence that shows the role of lean red meats as part of a healthy diet. Furthermore, the statement is misleading as it suggests current American diets include too much meat. Government data shows the protein food category is the only food group being consumed within the 2010 daily recommended values."
Thune's amendment to the budget would change the dietary guidelines to "accurately promote lean red meat as an important source of protein in a healthy diet" and prohibit environmental sustainability from being used as a factor in establishing the guidelines.
No more taxpayer dollars for Amtrak delicacies
By its own admission, the government-supported rail service will lose $53.2 million on its food and beverage service. That's actually big improvement from FY2006, when they lost $105 million, according to a report from Amtrak's Inspector General.
Still, that's $53.2 million too many for Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona. His amendment would cut $53.2 million from the transportation function of the budget and reduce Amtrak's budget cap by the same amount to ensure that no taxpayer dollars are used to pay for riders' butcher's hand-cut marinated steak or special chef's marketplace special.
When he offered a similar amendment to a transportation funding bill in 2013, it didn't sit well with the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
"Think about trying to travel on one of Amtrak's long distance trains (that travel routes up to 2,438 miles in length, over the course of days) without access to onboard food and beverages," the group wrote in a plea to its members to call Flake in protest. "This absence would be especially hard on the high percentage of Amtrak's passengers with disabilities and senior citizens who rely on long distance trains."