What is a Senate vote-a-rama?

Greg Nash
The U.S. Capitol is seen from the East Front Plaza on Friday, July 29, 2022.

Democrats are working quickly to move a sprawling tax, health care and climate plan through the Senate in the coming days using a complex procedure known as budget reconciliation that could allow passage without any Republican votes. 

If Democrats remain unified in the critical stretch between now and when they bring the bill to a floor vote, reconciliation will allow them to pass a mammoth bill that Republicans would have likely been able to block in the Senate under normal operating rules. 

But to use the procedure, Democrats must jump through a series of hoops before they bring the bill to the floor for a vote.  

One of those last steps is a vote-a-rama — an often grueling, hours-long session in which senators can offer a series of amendments for a chance to influence legislation before senators vote on the overall bill. 

The looming prospect of the voting marathon in the coming days has been a source of mixed feelings among Republicans and Democrats alike. 

Republicans see vote-a-rama as an opportunity to offer potential last-minute changes to the bill’s text and line up tough votes for their colleagues ahead of the 2022 November midterms. Democrats also eye the event as the last procedural hurdle to securing passage on a long-sought plan to advance key pieces of President Biden’s agenda. 

But there are also members on both sides of the aisle that wouldn’t exactly say they’re looking forward to the marathon, which can often take all night and last well into the morning. 

“Generally speaking, it’s theater, where the underlying bill is what ultimately passes out, and it’s dishonest,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) told The Hill on Wednesday.  

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) also said he wasn’t looking forward to the event, which he called “largely a waste of time.” 

“I’ve been through many of them, and they’re largely meaningless,”  Blumenthal added. “People know what the result is. Nobody’s paying a lot of attention to it.” 

The Senate generally defines vote-a-ramas on its website as “legislation the Senate voted on 15 or more times in one day.” According to the Senate’s records, there have been over 60 such sessions since the 1970s, most often when lawmakers passed legislation using reconciliation.  

If Democrats press forward with the bill as planned, it would mark the fourth time the Senate has held a vote-a-rama during the current congressional session.  

The Senate had its last vote-a-rama in August 2021, when Democrats attempted to pass a larger plan known as Build Back Better, a centerpiece of Biden’s agenda.  

But talks fell apart after opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key centrist holdout. Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) reached a deal late last month on a narrower plan aimed at deficit reduction, dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act. They hope to pass this bill later this month. 

However, Republicans are peeved with Democrats’ efforts to ram the reconciliation plan through Congress, arguing it would add to rising inflation and lead to higher taxes for American families and small businesses.

Republican amendments introduced during the former session were largely nonbinding, but experts say any amendments passed in a subsequent vote-a-rama on the current bill could become law, raising the stakes on lawmakers.   

“Every vote is actually live ammunition to do and change the law, as opposed to something that’s, to some extent, nonbinding,” Zach Moller, a former Senate Democratic budget aide and director of the economic program at the centrist think tank Third Way, said. 

However, Republicans have also grumbled about the chance of Democrats using what’s known as a wraparound amendment, which Moller noted is typically “stacked last before the final passage vote” and can be used to erase earlier “amendments adopted in the vote-a-rama.”    

“It was used before, but it can upset some senators. I don’t know if it will be used again,” he added. 

Democrats have argued their plan would help reduce inflation by, in part, cutting the deficit through proposed reforms to prescription drug pricing and tax measures aimed at the wealthy and large corporations.  

However, Republicans are peeved with Democrats’ efforts to ram the reconciliation plan through Congress, arguing it would add to rising inflation and lead to higher taxes on lower- and middle-income families.  

Currently, the legislation is undergoing review by the Senate parliamentarian, who decides which parts of the measure comply with budget reconciliation rules. Senators are closely watching the process, during which Republicans are also able to make objections to parts of the legislation, to see what falls out. 

Timing around when Congress would proceed with a vote-a-rama is up in the air, though Democrats say it could happen as early as this weekend. 

“If we get onto it Thursday, and then maybe we start voting on amendments on Friday, I mean, you could see this thing going into Sunday, maybe even early next week,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). 

GOP leaders say lawmakers can likely expect hundreds of amendments filed by Republicans in the days leading up to the event, as some in the party have already voiced appetite for votes on areas like taxes and immigration for the session. 

But leaders anticipate the amount senators actually end up voting on will be considerably less. 

“The last time we did reconciliation, I think there were over 1,000 amendments filed,” Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, said earlier this week, though he noted only several dozen were actually voted on. 

Tags budget reconciliation Inflation Reduction Act Inflation Reduction Act Manchin-Schumer deal reconciliation bill Vote-a-rama Vote-A-Rama

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