Posted: Feb. 25, 2014


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Chris Coons knew something was up, but he did not know what.

As a first-term Democratic senator from Delaware, Coons was taking a turn presiding over the chamber, as junior members do. It was Wednesday, Feb. 12, and he took over while a very long roll call was already going on.

"I recall noticing that there was a sort of commotion on the floor and a conclave of Republicans, who were vigorously debating something," Coons said.

"Maybe five or ten minutes into it -- because there were no votes being cast -- I remember leaning toward the parliamentarian and asking, what's going on, and she said, we're not sure, there's been some significant problem or delay."

It was another one of those moments that is making Coons into the Forrest Gump of the Senate. Give him the gavel, and stuff happens.

In this case, Coons found himself presiding over what would be a tradition-busting "silent vote" while the Senate struggled to break a filibuster, so it could proceed to raise the debt ceiling to stave off default and avoid another government shutdown, as it did ultimately manage to do.

The Republicans were in a predicament of their own making. They did not want the debt ceiling to be raised, because their Tea Party wing is so dead set against it, but they did not want the government to default, either.

The Democrats by themselves could not get to the super-majority of 60 votes to stop the filibuster. As Coons watched, the Republicans were trying to figure out what to do.

What happened was the Republicans got a little sly parliamentary help from the Democratic leadership, which runs the Senate, to enable the Republicans to come up with some votes.

It sprang from the idiosyncrasies of a Senate roll call. The senators do not have to stand at their desks and call out their "ayes" and "nays." They might simply gesture with a thumbs-up, for example, or stroll to the front of the chamber and speak their vote in a voice too low for anyone but the clerks to hear.

It makes it nearly impossible to know who voted how until the roll call is concluded and a clerk reads out the names of "senators voting in the affirmative" and "senators voting in the negative."

The clerk did not read out the names.

All that happened was Coons was given the final tally of 67-31 to announce. It was clear the filibuster was broken, but not the identities of the Republicans who joined with Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, the Republican leadership, to break it.

As Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill, later explained, the parliamentary cover came courtesy of Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, who consented to the Republicans' request not to announce the names to make it easier for the Republican leaders to round up support.

The press corps was up in arms over this "silent vote."

"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," Frank Thorp V, the chair of the Radio-Television Correspondents Association Executive Committee, was quoted by Roll Call as saying.

Sometime later, the names did become public, but the shock remained.

Coons was not in on the parliamentary gamesmanship. When the going gets tough and the Democratic leaders really need someone in the know to preside, they go and get another Delawarean. The vice president.

"As the presiding officer, you have very little role in the outcome. You simply announce the outcome," Coons said.

The "silent vote" is only the latest time Coons had the gavel as a session turned memorable.

Coons was presiding in 2011 as a roll call stretched toward midnight, the deadline to keep from going over the "fiscal cliff" to a government shutdown. As it happened, the crisis was averted as the Senate beat the clock, instead of making like Cinderella.

Even more notable, Coons was on his way to preside over a perfunctory session one summer day in 2011 when the Capitol shook from an earthquake, best known for damaging the Washington Monument, which is still closed.

The session was hurriedly shifted to a basement conference room in the Postal Square Building, across from Union Station not far from the Capitol. It was over and done in 22 seconds, but history was made.

Before the quake, the Senate had not met outside the Capitol since the British burned it in 1814.

Just another example of how it can be earthshaking when Coons comes to preside.