The Senate is long-known as "The World's Most Deliberative Body."
On Monday, it became "The World's Most Deliberate Body."
Most Senate roll call votes only consume 15 to 20 minutes. But on Monday afternoon, the Senate plodded through a roll call vote for three hours and 29 minutes. Even though the result was a fait accompli. And even though the most-crucial moment of the vote came just an hour and six minutes into the protracted poll.
Now, before the criticism starts, there's good reason the Senate held the vote open so long.
The Senate is trying to approve President Obama's $858 billion measure to renew a slate of tax cuts scheduled to expire at the end of the year. So Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) scheduled a key test vote at 3 pm Monday. If the Senate mustered a supermajority of 60 votes, the Senate would be on a glide path to approving Mr. Obama's plan later in the week. However, foul weather threatened to prevent all senators from making it back for the 3 pm vote So Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) agreed to hold the vote open for several hours so senators could jet back to Washington from their home states.
As planned, the vote on "The Motion to Invoke Cloture on the Motion to Concur in the House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to HR 4853, the Tax Relief Act, with a Reid/McConnell Amendment" began at precisely 3 Monday. A Senate clerk briskly read the alphabetical roll of senators' names.
"Mr. Akaka! Mr. Alexander!" the clerk recited.
At "Mr. Alexander," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), standing near the well of the Senate, hastily interrupted the clerk as though making a bid at a country auction.
"Aye!" bleated Alexander, almost before the clerk finished uttering his name.
And thus, Alexander, became the first of 98 senators who would vote over the next three hours and 29 minutes.
A wave of senators then began pouring in to vote.
First, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) wandered onto the floor and voted, followed by Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Roger Wicker (R-MS). Five teams of Senate pages positioned themselves at each Senate entranceway to fling the doors as senators approached the floor. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) stood for a few moments near a desk in the well of the chamber before voting. Alexander and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) chatted at desks toward the rear of the room.
The clerk continued reading through the names at an uneven pace.
"Mr. Coburn!" the clerk intoned, then paused for seven seconds before reading "Mr. Cochran!"
Then 15 seconds passed.
Then just a two second respite before the clerk read "Mr. Conrad!"
The second floor of the Capitol bustled as reporters squeezed together in a corridor near the fabled Senate elevators. The reporters camped out there, hoping to catch senators for a quote as they migrated from the Senate office buildings to the Senate floor.
Around 3:08 pm, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) voted and hustled out of the chamber and then loped down a stairwell, a string of reporters uncoiling behind him.
A minute later, Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT) became the reporters' prize quarry. The gangly Bennett emerged from Senate chamber, nibbling on a Fun Size Milky Way bar. The scribes accosted him in the hallway with questions about the tax legislation.
Meantime, the scent of burning firewood wafted through the Senate wing of the Capitol. Sustained 20 mph winds and temperatures in the twenties cast a chill on building's marble floors, prompting someone to ignite a fire somewhere.
By 3:30, waves of senators spilled into the chamber to vote. Even those who voted earlier lingered to chat with their colleagues. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) talked up Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) buttonholed Harry Reid at his desk but did not vote. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) strolled among the desks and leafed through some white binder. Around 3:33, Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) approached the dais and joked briefly with the clerk.
Upstairs in the press gallery, journalists tracked the vote on long strips of cardboard tally sheets, all pre-printed with the name of every senator. As each senator voted, reporters slashed a pencil stroke across either the "yea" or "nay" column by the senator's name. The reporters then compared notes to see if they each had the same score.
By 3:39, the vote was winning 50-5. That's just ten votes of hitting the magical figure of 60.
However, the voting pace slowed to a crawl. "We've hit a wall," grumbled one journalist, knowing there were lots of people yet to vote. And the Senate leadership said it would keep the vote open until at least 6 pm.
Up in the gallery, the reporters rubbered together, anxious to see which lawmaker would put the issue over the 60-vote threshold.
Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) voted at 3:55 pm, making it 57 yeas.
Or was it 58 yeas?
There was a problem: Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) was perched atop the rostrum, presiding over the vote. Typically junior senators are tasked with presiding over the Senate, often in hour or two-hour shifts. It's often hard to discern whether the presiding officer has voted. And such was the case with Warner.
No one knew.
At precisely 4:00, the chamber doors swung open and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) strode through. Could he be the 60th vote? No. He went to talk to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
At 4:01, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) arrived and made a beeline to the dais. There he chatted with Warner. Manchin was due to relieve Warner from his post on the rostrum at 4:00. The reporters peered over the ledge of the press gallery, trying to discern if Warner had voted. Or if Manchin was about to vote.
"Mr. Manchin! Mr. Manchin, aye!" declared the clerk.
Fifty-eight at least! Maybe 59. Did Warner vote?
Warner came down from the dais and stood in the well. He noticed the throng of reporters staring down at him from above and gestured to one of his colleagues. Several reporters made eye-contact with Warner and tried stage-whispers and hand-signals in an effort to determine if the Virginia Democrat had voted and how.
Warner signaled a thumbs-up.
At 4:06 pm, the press gallery emptied as reporters scampered up the pitched staircases bound for their cellphones and laptops, trying to break the news.
They all knew the Senate would approve the test vote. It was just a question of when it would hit 60.
Still, there were well over 30 senators yet to vote.
At 4:16 pm, Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) arrived and became the first Republican to vote no.
By 4:24, the second floor of the Capitol no longer smelled like kindling, but like burnt popcorn.
At 4:26 pm, Sen. Landrieu voted aye.
At 4:40, a cart arrived in the hall near the office of Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), stocked with firewood.
And so it went.
The Senate chamber emptied out as the voting pace dwindled.
Kyl and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) conferenced near the back of the chamber as Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) arrived to vote no. By 4:45 pm, only two reporters remained in the downstairs corridor near the elevators.
At 5:05 pm, the Senate chamber was devoid of any senators except for Joe Manchin, stationed up on the dais.
Another hour of this? Really? The vote was 79-11. Why not just call it off and go home?
But senators take voting very seriously. And just because there are enough senators to pass an issue doesn't mean the Senate short-circuits a senator's right to vote.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) voted aye around 5:30.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) arrived at 5:42 to vote yes, followed by a 5:53 pm no vote from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK).
For a moment, it appeared that Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) might be the last senator to vote, striding in right at 5:59 pm as Harry Reid huddled with Mitch McConnell. But neither Reid nor McConnell moved to close the vote.
Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) surfaced to vote at 6:10 pm, his overcoat draped over his right arm.
At 6:16 pm, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Jim DeMint (R-SC) burst through the door simultaneously, perhaps after touching down in Washington on the same flight. And the Palmetto State duo promptly cancelled each other out. Graham voted yes. DeMint voted no.
Graham and DeMint then shook hands and parted ways.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was the last senator to vote at 6:25 pm.
They closed the vote at 6:29 pm, the motion passing 83-15. That sets up a final vote on the bill either Tuesday or Wednesday.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) never made it, having attended the Oregon Economic Summit all day.
209 minutes for 98 people to vote. In other words, one senator voting every 2.13 minutes. Not exactly a breakneck pace. Even though the outcome was anticlimactic and settled long ago.
After all, the Senate's the world's most "deliberate" body.