It’s not a carnival ride—although it might prove even more adventurous. The Senate’s consideration of health-care legislation will soon result in a grueling series of votes dubbed “vote-a-rama.”
After 20 hours of debate on the budget reconciliation measure, equally divided between the majority and minority parties, the Senate will complete consideration of all pending amendments, with the process’ conclusion typically determined when senators exhaust all the amendments they wish to offer—not to mention themselves.
Here’s what you need to know about “vote-a-rama.”
1. It’s Physically Demanding
The “vote-a-rama” process during consideration of the 2010 reconciliation bill that “fixed” Obamacare provides an example. On Wednesday, March 24, senators began voting on amendments at 5:32 PM. Nearly nine hours later, at 2:17 on the morning of Thursday, March 25, senators had completed votes on 29 amendments. The Senate then took a brief break, re-convened at 9:45 the same morning, and disposed of a further 12 amendments over an additional four-plus hours, with a vote on final passage at 2 PM on March 25.
For 20-something or 30-something staffers—let alone senators several times their age—this lengthy process can prove grueling, with long hours, late nights, lack of sleep, and little food (or bad food) the norm.
2. It’s Mentally Confusing
Between votes on amendments, senators usually allow for brief one-minute speeches by the amendment’s proponent and an opponent (generally the majority or minority floor manager of the bill). However, as Senate procedural expert James Wallner notes, that habit has derived from custom and unanimous consent, not any formal rule. If any senator objects to the brief “well speeches” as part of “vote-a-rama,” then the Senate will vote on amendments without any debate or a summary of what the amendment does.
Even with the brief summaries by amendment sponsors, it’s often difficult for senators—and particularly Senate staff—to understand exactly what’s going on down on the Senate floor. Amendment text can occasionally change at the last minute, as can the sequence of amendments offered. On occasion, senators may have to “fly blind” without clear guidance or recommendations from their staff on how to vote. Coupled with the long hours and lack of sleep (for members and staff alike), it’s a recipe for mistaken votes and confusion.
3. It’s Hard to Pass Amendments with a Simple Majority…
As Wallner noted in an article earlier this week, the Senate’s rules essentially give preferential treatment to the underlying reconciliation bill, making it difficult to craft amendments that can pass with a simple (i.e., 50-vote) majority. The amendment must be germane (i.e., relevant) to the underlying bill, and cannot increase the deficit.
Moreover, to pass with a simple majority, an amendment must also comply with the six-part “Byrd rule” test. For instance, an amendment may not have only an incidental fiscal impact, make programmatic changes to Title II of the Social Security Act, or exceed the jurisdiction of the committees who received the reconciliation instructions (in this case, the Senate Finance and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committees). Other than simple motions striking particular provisions, amendments will face a difficult time running the procedural gauntlet necessary to pass on a 50-vote threshold.
4. …But It’s Easy to Get Amendment Votes
Even if an amendment does not comply with the budget reconciliation rules, senators can still offer a motion to waive those rules. The motion to waive requires the approval of three-fifths of senators sworn (i.e., 60 votes), which often does not materialize, but the motion to waive provides a way to get senators on the record on a specific issue. Many votes in a “vote-a-rama” series consist of a “motion to waive all applicable budgetary discipline”—i.e., the “Byrd rule” and other restrictions that make passing an amendment with a simple majority difficult.
5. It Will Result in Messaging Amendments
Perhaps the classic example comes from the Obamacare “vote-a-rama” in March 2010, when then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) offered an amendment that included the following language:
(b) Prohibiting Coverage of Certain Prescription Drugs—
(1) In general.–Health programs administered by the Federal Government and American Health Benefit Exchanges (as described in section 1311 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) shall not provide coverage or reimbursement for—
(A) prescription drugs to treat erectile dysfunction for individuals convicted of child molestation, rape, or other forms of sexual assault;
The “No Viagra for Sex Offenders” amendment drew no small amount of attention at the time, and led to political ads being run against the Democrats who voted against it (as some predicted prior to the amendment vote).
Democrats will almost certainly offer similar messaging amendments this year, including amendments unrelated to the bill, or even health care. They may offer amendments regarding the Russia investigation—those would likely be subject to a 60-vote threshold, as foreign policy is not germane to a budget reconciliation bill, but if Democrats wish to get Republicans on record, any vote will do.
Doubtless Democrats will offer amendments related to Donald Trump’s taxes—the reconciliation bill is in the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee, so these amendments could theoretically prove germane, but amendments specifically targeting the president (i.e., making policy, with only an incidental fiscal impact) could violate the “Byrd rule,” making them subject to a 60-vote threshold. For Democratic political consultants, the possibilities are virtually endless.
6. It May Lead to Chicanery—and ‘Strategery’
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has generally opposed allowing reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada or other countries, with one noteworthy exception. In December 2009, McConnell, along with several other Republicans, supported one of two reimportation amendments offered on the Senate floor.
While opposing reimportation on the merits, some Republicans supported these particular amendments because they wanted to break up the “rock-solid deal” between Democrats and Big Pharma—whereby pharma agreed to support Obamacare in exchange for a promise from Democrats not to support reimportation of prescription drugs.
As it happened, Democrats spent an entire week—from December 8 through December 15, 2009—without floor votes on amendments to Obamacare. The delay—effectively, Democrats filibustering their own bill—came in part because party leaders could not persuade fellow Democrats to vote against the reimportation amendment—and could not afford to allow the amendment to pass.
One can expect similar gamesmanship by the Democratic minority this time around, as evidenced by their tactical decision to abstain from voting on Tuesday’s motion to proceed to the bill until Republican senators mustered a majority solely from within their own ranks. If only three Republicans defect on an amendment, Democrats could have the power to play a decisive role in that amendment’s outcome. It’s an open question how they will do so.
For instance, will some or all of the 12 Democrats who voted against reimportation earlier this year—during January’s “vote-a-rama,” when the Senate passed the budget enabling the current reconciliation process—switch their votes so the amendment will pass, causing Republicans heartburn with the pharmaceutical lobby? When and how will Democrats use other tactical voting to gum up the process for Republicans? The answers range from possible to likely, but it remains to be seen exactly how the process will play out.
7. It Will Inflict Political Pain
Consider for instance a flashpoint in the reconciliation bill: Whether to defund Planned Parenthood. Two Republican senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, have already stated they oppose defunding the organization. If one more Republican defects, Democrats would likely have the votes to strip the defunding provision. (While Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin previously supported defunding Planned Parenthood two years ago, in the immediate aftermath of sting videos featuring organization leaders, he has since reversed his position, and will presumably vote with all Democrats to strip the provision.)
To put it another way: Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) may not just have to be the 50th vote supporting the underlying bill, he may also have to provide the 50th vote to keep the Planned Parenthood defunding provision in the legislation. Will Heller vote to defund the nation’s largest abortion provider—and what will happen to the bill if he, and the Senate as a whole, votes to strip the provision out? Senate leaders will face several of these white-knuckle amendment dramas during “vote-a-rama,” any one of which could jeopardize the entire legislation.
8. It Could Unravel the Entire Bill
Ultimately, with no agreement among Republicans to preserve the underlying bill text, and no clear roadmap on how to proceed, “vote-a-rama” could resemble pulling on the proverbial thread—one good tug and the whole thing unravels. What if Heller ends up helping to strip out Planned Parenthood defunding—and conservatives respond by blocking more funding for Medicaid expansion states? What if moderates vote to strip the “consumer freedom” amendment offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (T-TX), and conservatives retaliate by taking out the “side deals” included to assuage moderates’ concerns?
At the end of “vote-a-rama,” senators could be left with an incoherent policy mess, legislation that no one would readily support. It’s the big potential downside of the freewheeling amendment strategy—but a chance that McConnell apparently feels he has no other choice but to take.
9. It’s Why Senate Leadership Is Talking about a Conference with the House
In recent days, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and others have floated the idea that, rather than having the House pass the Senate’s bill whole, sending it straight to the White House, members may instead want to have a House-Senate conference to resolve differences between the two chambers. Some have gone so far as to propose the Senate passing a “skinny” bill—repeal of the individual and employer mandates, along with the medical device tax—as a placeholder to get the reconciliation measure to a conference committee.
This strategy would have one beneficial outcome for the Senate’s Republican leadership: By allowing congressional leaders to re-write the bill in conference, it would save them from having to abide by the results of “vote-a-rama.” If, for instance, senators vote to strip out Planned Parenthood defunding, or to add in reimportation language, congressional leaders could re-write the bill in conference to negate the effects of those votes—presenting a new measure to both chambers with a binary choice to approve the bill or not. (In other words, rather than a “wrap-around bait-and-switch” on the Senate floor, senators could instead face a bait-and-switch in conference.)
That leadership has mooted a conference committee speaks to the nature of the “vote-a-rama” ahead. Despite the complaints on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue about the lengthy nature of the health-care process, Senate leaders are now looking to extend the process further via a House-Senate conference—because they may need to regain control of the legislation after a wild and unpredictable debate on the Senate floor.