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February 13, 2016

Senators’ Debt Limit Votes Kept Off Microphones; Reporters Protest (Updated) (Video)

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Updated 4:15 p.m. | In a major departure from procedure during Wednesday’s climactic vote on suspending the federal debt limit, the Senate kept some senators’ votes secret while the nearly hourlong tally was under way — a move that has drawn sharp criticism from Capitol Hill reporters.

The stakes for Wednesday’s vote were as high as they come, with the full faith and credit of the United States, the political future of Republican leaders and another government shutdown showdown on the line.

On an average day, any C-SPAN viewer would know how senators voted in real time because votes are read aloud. (See our post on the six senators who appear to have changed their votes.)

But on Wednesday, the clerks did not name names. Instead of announcing the rolling vote tally as the vote went along on the critical motion to limit debate on the debt limit measure, senators were allowed to cast their votes in relative secrecy. Overlooked at the time, it has since caught the attention of numerous reporters.

After organizations representing journalists complained and a few hours after this story was published, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s spokesman Adam Jentleson gave CQ Roll Call a statement explaining the switch.

“After the vote began, it was quickly clear that Republican leaders were struggling to deliver enough votes to clear the 60-vote hurdle upon which they had insisted instead of a simple majority, and a potentially catastrophic default suddenly seemed possible. 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,” he said.

Jentleson said the request “is consistent with Senate rules.”

“Senator Reid believed that protecting the full faith and credit of the United States and avoiding a default that could have disastrous consequences for anyone with a bank account were the most important objectives. For this reason and as a courtesy to his Republican colleagues, he consented to Republicans’ request,” Jentleson continued. “As always, the Senate floor was open to the public, the press was free to observe the proceedings from their vantage point in the chamber, and the proceedings were broadcast live and unedited on CSPAN2.”

Before the statement was released, Siobhan Hughes of The Wall Street Journal, the chairwoman of the Standing Committee of Correspondents for the daily press on Capitol Hill, was the first to formally criticize what happened.

“We are extremely concerned with the way the vote tally was handled yesterday on a pivotal debt-ceiling vote. When the vote tallies are not read aloud, it makes it harder for the media and therefore the public to get the information they need to hold lawmakers accountable,” Hughes said.

NBC’s Frank Thorp V, chairman of the Radio-Television Correspondents Association Executive Committee, had a similar critique. He said the RTCA “believes that the press and public deserve an explanation for what appears to be a breach of decades of protocol when votes were not publicly announced in real time during Wednesday’s critical vote in the Senate on the debt limit.”

Thorp added, “In the spirit of transparency, we have requested more information on who directed the Senate Clerk to not read the votes aloud, and why that decision was made.”

After this story was posted, Heather Rothman of BNA News, chairwoman of the Standing Committee of Correspondents for the periodical press on Capitol Hill, issued a similar statement.

“The handling of Wednesday night’s debt ceiling vote has raised serious questions about the Senate’s commitment to transparency during floor action and the recording of votes. We will be taking steps to raise our concerns,” she said.

In his statement, Jentleson said Reid “takes transparency very seriously and is aware of the legitimate concerns that have been raised” and that he has directed his staff to work with the committees to answer their questions.

Andrew Taylor of The Associated Press detailed his own concerns late Wednesday night in a lengthy series of posts on Twitter, including the effect of the lack of transparency on investors. The debt limit vote occurred during the trading day.

C-SPAN Vice President of Programming Terry Murphy also noted not reading the votes was a departure from the norm.

“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,” Murphy said in a statement. “The tactic certainly gives the concept of legislative transparency a black eye.”

Customarily, after calling the name of each senator, the clerk will then announce the names of senators voting in the affirmative and negative to that point. After that, the clerk would key on the microphone for each senator casting a vote. That did not happen Wednesday, and exactly why remains a bit of a mystery.

In the chamber itself, members of the media are positioned in a balcony directly above the desk of the presiding officer. Reporters in attendance, as well as press gallery staff, watch the floor in an effort to see each senator signal the clerk with his or her vote, but this is an inexact science. Sometimes a vote can be as subtle as a finger pointing upward. For example, as Wednesday’s key vote dragged on, there was some question among reporters as to whether Tennessee Republican Bob Corker had voted in favor of the cloture motion.

The lack of announcements added to the drama because it was unclear if the Democrats were one or two votes short of the 60 votes needed to cut off the debate and put the debt limit hike on a glide path to President Barack Obama’s desk. It wasn’t until Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas,  cast votes in favor of cloture that even everyone in the room was sure the measure would clear the supermajority hurdle.

But Martin Paone, who spent more than a decade overseeing Senate floor operations for the Democrats, told CQ Roll Call in an email that the vote announcement practice known as the recap was designed to help senators, not the general public.

“I see the recap … as something that evolved over time for the members convenience so they’d know how their colleagues voted and not for the press though I can see where it can be a useful tool,” said Paone, who is now executive vice president of Prime Policy Group.

McConnell’s office did not immediately provide a response for this story. The incident may provoke a larger conversation. Last December, Reid said he would be open to electronic voting devices similar to those used in the House. But he added a caveat: “I don’t see it changing in the near future.”

Hannah Hess contributed to this report.

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