The Senate moved Thursday to pass a budget resolution for next year that is mostly significant because it could make it easier for Republicans to pass major tax cuts, a top GOP priority.
Passage of the budget is not in doubt -- all but one of the 52 Republican senators have indicated they will vote for it.
But before giving final approval, senators must go through vote-a-rama, a typically annual ritual when senators can offer an endless number of amendments. That process could stretch into the wee hours of Friday morning although there were signals that senators might limit their amendments and retire earlier than usual.
Many of the amendments are aimed at political messaging designed to inflict damage on senators of the opposite party or to make other political points.
For instance, progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, offered an amendment "to restore the trillion dollars in cuts to Medicaid paid for by reducing the Republican tax breaks for the wealthy." It was defeated by the Republicans, who control the Senate. He offered a second to prevent any tax cuts from going to the top one percent of earners. It was defeated too.
Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller, one of the most endangered Republicans running for re-election, proposed an amendment "to provide tax relief to American families with children to provide them with more money in their paychecks to make ends meet." Who could vote against that? No one. It passed 98-0.
Other amendments were more technical but still pointed. Like one from Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, aimed at making sure Republicans abide by pay-as-you-go rules when they eventually pass tax reform, something Republicans don't intend to do, since their tax plan is expected to increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion.
There were competing amendments from Democrats and Republicans over the contentious issue of allowing taxpayers to reduce state and local taxes from the federal returns. Democrats, who represent many higher-taxed states, wanted to preserve that deduction. Republicans, who represent many lower-taxed states, wanted to limit it.
In this case the Democrats lost and the Republicans won. Either way, none of the amendments are binding because the budget resolution doesn't become law.
Before the voting began, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, urged senators to quickly pass the budget so they could move forward on tax reform.
"Tax reform is all about getting America going again and growing again. It aims to take more money out of Washington's pockets and put more in middle-class pockets," McConnell said. "And it represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to replace a failing tax code that holds Americans back with one that works for them."
Tax reform is also politically critical for Republicans especially after the failure of health care reform. They are under enormous pressure from President Donald Trump and GOP voters to get a big legislative win.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said his party planned to offer fewer amendments than in past years and focus on the emerging GOP tax overhaul, which they argue will give big tax breaks to the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.
"We're going to also make our Republican colleagues vote on whether they want to raise taxes on the middle class," Schumer said. "The President claims his tax plan will cut taxes, but it actually will raise them on millions of hard working families. Today, our Republican colleagues will decide whether they want to support those tax increases, or protect the middle class from paying more taxes."
Once the budget passes the Senate, it must be reconciled with a competing bill that passed the House. While this is often a complicated process, GOP leaders expect to do it relatively quickly because if they do, they will be able to use special Senate rules that will allow them to pass tax reform in the Senate with just 51 votes instead of the 60 often needed for major bills.
That same process was used for the repeal of Obamacare, which ultimately failed. The specific legislation behind tax reform is still being negotiated among GOP leaders.
Republican leaders have been working with the White House and House leadership to craft a technical amendment that would clear the way for the House to take up the Senate version and pass it as is, according to two GOP sources. While the language hasn't been finalized yet, it is nearing completion and would take another logistical hurdle out of the way -- that underscores Republican desire to move forward on the tax overhaul as soon as possible.