covid-19 stimulus

‘Vote-a-Rama’ Is the Price Democrats Must Pay to Avoid the Filibuster

Time to bring out the cots for another “vote-a-rama” like this one in 2017. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag

The great thing about the congressional budget process is that it created an avenue for circumventing the Senate’s filibuster roadblock, which in turn has made 60-vote supermajorities essential for most significant legislation. But this “budget reconciliation” shortcut (which is authorized by the kind of budget resolution going through Congress right now) comes with some downsides. The most notable involve various aspects of the Byrd rule, limiting reconciliation to fiscally germane measures. But there’s an even more annoying but basically pointless byproduct of the budget process: a period of unlimited amendments that can be offered before either a budget resolution or a reconciliation bill receives a final vote in the Senate. The staffer who came up with the term “vote-a-rama” for this ritual defined it thusly:

vote-a-rama: (n.) an extended sequence of back-to-back votes in the United States Senate. A side effect of special rules for considering the budget resolution or a reconciliation bill, a vote-a-rama may last 10, 20, 30 hours or more, and occurs after all time for debate has expired but before a vote on final passage.

Senators from both sides can offer amendments that will be stacked up for a vote-a-rama, but typically it’s the minority party that aggressively utilizes the process to set up inconvenient or embarrassing show votes that might come back to haunt members of the majority during a reelection campaign. Democrats exploited the vote-a-rama when Republicans were using the budget process in 2017 to try (unsuccessfully) to repeal Obamacare and (successfully) cut taxes. Now it’s the Republicans’ turn, as the Senate considers the budget resolution needed to set up a reconciliation bill enacting Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief and stimulus proposal, as Politico explains:

The self-inflicted suffering has begun for Senate Democrats trying to muscle through President Joe Biden’s pandemic aid plan without a single Republican vote …

Republicans have teed up hundreds of amendments, including to preserve former President Donald Trump’s border wall, reverse Biden’s action to nix the Keystone XL pipeline and create “deficit-neutral reserve funds” on everything from supporting resources for police to prohibiting “sex-selective abortion.”

Despite its dramatic trappings — the round-the-clock sessions, the cots set up in the Capitol hallways so that senators can catch naps, the unusually large and frequent presence of the entire legislative body (subject to COVID-19 social-distancing requirements) — there’s no real drama at all, and Democrats hope it passes largely unnoticed:

Urging the American public not to watch the bruising legislative “fight” that could keep senators voting late into the night, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) bemoaned the free-for-all amendment process as “the worst part of the United States Senate.”

“We need to remember what this is all about. This is not about a goofy 10-hour or 12-hour or 15-hour process where we stack amendments and try to set each other up, that we’ll somehow trick someone into taking a bad position that can be turned into a campaign advertisement,” Schatz said on the Senate floor. “It is nonsense, and everybody should ignore it if they can. Do anything to not watch vote-a-rama.”

Sounds like a fine public-service recommendation to me. But the Senate will get to go through another vote-a-rama later, assuming the budget resolution passes and a reconciliation bill is brought to the floor. Avoiding one of the Senate’s ludicrous traditions (the filibuster) means indulging another.

‘Vote-a-Rama’ Is the Price Dems Pay to Avoid the Filibuster