Comment
39
Tweet
0
Print
RSS Feeds

Suspense in Senate: Debt vote shrouded in secrecy

Friday - 2/14/2014, 3:24am  ET

ANDREW TAYLOR
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Financial markets were watching, the retirement accounts of millions of Americans on the line.

Nervous senators were watching too, well aware that political fortunes could be on the line.

So on perhaps the most important vote of the year, the Senate did something extraordinary this week: It tried to keep the vote tally secret until the outcome was assured.

As lawmakers voted Wednesday on must-pass legislation to increase the government's debt limit, they dropped the parliamentary equivalent of a curtain on the voting as it was in progress.

Typically, roll-call votes in the Senate play out in a very public manner. People watching from the galleries or tracking action from afar via C-SPAN can watch democracy unfold in all its messy wonder.

Each senator's vote is announced by the clerk; each time a senator switches sides, that's announced too. Onlookers can keep a running tally of how it's going.

But not this time. Fifteen minutes into the vote, as captured by C-Span cameras, the tally clerk rose to recite the vote. A Senate aide alerted Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the six Republicans who later switched his vote from "nay" to "aye." McCain intervened, and the clerk sat right back down. "Would you ..." McCain said before the live microphone cut off.

A McCain spokesman denied the Arizonan intervened. "McCain didn't know that they weren't going to read the names and he didn't care if they did. He didn't have input on that," emailed spokesman Brian Rogers.

Senate leaders hoped they would get the necessary votes ultimately, but they were worried at the time and faced financial and political repercussions if the vote cratered in public view.

Both sides were concerned that investors might panic, causing the stock market to tank in real time. That's what happened in 2008 when the House voted to reject a Wall Street bailout plan, triggering a 7 percent drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Skittish Republicans had an additional concern: They knew the Democratic-backed legislation couldn't move forward without at least a few GOP votes, but none of them wanted to be left hanging out there alone on what could be a politically treacherous vote.

Whatever the reason, they kept the public in the dark while they worked things out. A Democratic spokesman later explained that Republicans requested the clerk stay silent so it would be easier for GOP senators to switch their votes.

No more announcing each individual "yea" and "nay." The running tally was known only by a handful of insiders.

What was clear, though, as the vote dragged on well beyond the allotted 15 minutes, was that Republicans were reluctant to help Democrats overcome a filibuster by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican and tea party favorite who set out to keep the Senate from even voting on the actual debt measure.

It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, and the count was stuck at 58. The debt limit measure teetered on the brink of failure.

Cruz's insistence on getting 60 votes prevented the bill from being passed with a simple majority in the 100-member Senate. Had he not objected, the 53 Democrats and two independents who align themselves with Democrats could have done it by themselves without forcing any Republicans -- particularly those up for re-election this year -- to cast politically painful votes.

But now the filibuster vote was on. And the only way to know where the tally stood was to sit in the Senate chamber and track the vote of every senator, typically made with just a hand gesture.

It's a challenging task for even the most accomplished Senate watcher to perfect.

Nervous Wall Street traders and other interested observers were out of luck as the voted dragged on for more than an hour.

Financial markets floated softly southward as suspense built.

"We were very disappointed that Wednesday's change in Senate voting protocol kept us from giving the public real time access to this key vote," said Terry Murphy, C-SPAN's vice president of programming. "The tactic certainly gives the concept of legislative transparency a black eye."

Afterward, there was confusion. Initially, a spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who runs the Senate, said Reid was unaware at the time that Senate procedures were being bypassed. Later, spokesman Adam Jentleson said Reid "consented to Republicans' request."

While acknowledging the media's concerns had merit, Jentleson couldn't guarantee a veiled vote won't happen again.

"After the vote began, it was quickly clear that Republican leaders were struggling to deliver enough votes ... and a potentially catastrophic default suddenly seemed possible," Jentleson said. "At Senate Republicans' request, the clerk did not call the names during the vote to make it easier for Republican leaders to convince their members to switch their votes."

   1 2  -  Next page  >>