Suspense in Senate: Debt vote shrouded in secrecy to limit financial and political fallout

The Associated Press

In this Feb. 12, 2014, photo, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., from left, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, talk as they wait in the majority leader's office, for a meting King Abdullah II of Jordan, on Capitol Hill in Washington. The meeting came after lawmakers voted on must-pass legislation to increase the government's debt limit and after their leaders decided to drop the parliamentary equivalent of a curtain on the voting until its outcome was assured (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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By 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.