WASHINGTON — Sometime this week, probably in the wee hours of Friday morning, the Senate will finally vote to begin the process of dismantling Obamacare, the first time the chamber will have done so.
Because the procedural move is part of the nonbinding budget, President Obama will simply ignore Congress. But you'll see the vote again, when Republican senators run ads hailing their efforts to end Obamacare during their reelection campaigns.
Welcome to budget week in the United States Senate, the busiest single week of the calendar year in which very little actually happens, but everything matters.
"When Congress considers the budget, the House and Senate floors turn into political battlefields where amendments are used by both sides as weapons," said Ron Bonjean, a former top Republican leadership aide in both chambers.
The basic idea is simple: craft amendments that cause the most damage to the other side while building street cred — and artificially inflating your voting record — to ingratiate yourself with the most hardline members of your base. The votes are in no way binding or create actual policy, but that doesn't mean they're insignificant.
Campaigns routinely use the votes as part of ad campaigns, while groups like the NRA, Sierra Club, Heritage Action, and NARAL gorge on the dozen of budget votes to build out annual voting scorecards for lawmakers.
And with five members of the Senate either already running or expected to run for president in 2016, the stakes will be significantly higher.
Both parties are largely holding their most politically damaging amendments close to the vest so the other side doesn't have time to craft response amendments to offset any political damage.
Still, both sides have already begun telegraphing their likely lines of attack.
On the Republican side, Sens. Jeff Sessions, David Vitter, and other conservatives are expected to force potentially dozens of votes on immigration policy, potentially ranging from ending Obama's deportation deferral program to new constraints on birthright citizenship, aimed at stopping so-called "anchor babies."
Georgia Sen. David Perdue has already introduced an amendment to reign in the "rogue" Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a favorite target of conservative and big business ire.
Looking for a Benghazi related vote? Sen. Lindsey Graham has you covered with his amendment to boost spending on securing overseas diplomatic facilities. Like fiscal responsibility and constraining the growth of deficits and spending? Sen. Ron Johnson and host of other Republicans have already prepared a series of amendments targeting the budget and appropriations process. Defense hawks have already made clear they'll look to boost spending; culture warriors should be on the look out for abortion amendments.
GOP focus on the Obama administration's regulatory policies — particularly at agencies like EPA — should also get extensive attention, and will likely put moderate Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin and others in the position of having to break ranks with their party to avoid potentially damaging ads in their next election.
Democrats, who this year are led by Budget Committee ranking member Bernie Sanders, a potential presidential candidate, have their own well-stocked arsenal of amendments. Sanders will kick it off Monday evening with his amendment to end the offshoring of jobs, the first of a series of jobs-related votes Sanders and Democrats are planning.
Sanders also already has an amendment on deck to raise the minimum wage, while Democrats are expected to make extensive political hay with votes on climate change, votes to maintain parts of Obamacare, Social Security, and Medicaid as is.
Indeed, thanks to a treacherous 2016 election map for Republicans, Democrats' use of budget amendments could prove the most painful, especially for senators like Kelly Ayotte, Mark Kirk, and Pat Toomey, all of whom hail from bluer or outright blue states.
And that, in the end, is really the point of the budget process in the modern Congress.
"Everything under the sun, from energy to taxes to you name it will be subject to amendments … so they can run ads on it next year," Bonjean said.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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