Senators groan at being held hostage in the chamber for hours during a vote-a-rama, but through gritted teeth, Democrats and Republicans alike say they aren’t willing to jettison the practice.
“There certainly seem to be too many around here,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) opened the start of Wednesday night’s vote-a-rama on health care reconciliation by limiting debate on each amendment to two minutes apiece, and he warned that those terms would be strictly enforced.
“The chair is going to enforce that to the letter of the law,” Reid said. “There will be one minute to explain the amendment and one minute to disagree with the amendment.”
Reid also warned that there would be no breaks in what he estimated would be nine hours of continuous Senate voting on the reconciliation package, and he asked Members to stay close to their seats to ensure the process moves along.
The vote-a-rama, a long series of consecutive votes on amendments, evolved after the budget rules were rewritten in the 1970s. Because budgets can now be fast-tracked and are immune to filibuster, a mechanism was inserted to try to preserve a modicum of minority rights. Under the process, minority Members can offer a virtually unlimited number of amendments.
Eric Ueland, who served as chief of staff to former Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said that over time the leaders in both parties began to encourage Members to hold their amendments until the end of debate “so that the important issues leadership identified would receive guaranteed debate focus and votes that could be highlighted.”
Ueland continued, “This ends up being a win-win for everyone. Members, knowing that they will get a vote, can be more patient about working with leadership to slate their proposal, [and] leadership, knowing that they can get particular focus on issues important to their party, are able to sequence debate and prominence on the most important aspects of the public policy fights inside the tight time limits.”
Martin Paone, a former Democratic leadership aide who now works for Prime Policy Group, said the process also allows minority Senators to offer amendments that put the opposition in the political hot seat. Case in point: Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) offering to the health care reconciliation bill to ban coverage of erectile dysfunction drugs for convicted sex offenders.
“They’ll use that vote at the end of the year to run a 30-second ad in November,” Paone said.
And while Senators complain about the lengthy process, Paone said few would ever want to reform it.
“If you’re in the minority, you’re never going to say you want to do away with a vote-a-rama, because it’s a chance for Members to debate something they want to debate on the floor,” he said.
In recent years, the most recorded votes held on a reconciliation bill was 51 in both 1995 and 2001, according to a Congressional Research Service report. The 1995 budget resolution posted a record 56 recorded votes. Republicans on Wednesday declined to say whether they would exceed those records in the current vote-a-rama.
But unlike this year when Democrats aim to defeat every amendment offered, never before have zero amendments been adopted during the process. Roberts said if Democrats are successful, it would create a new precedent in the Senate, which Paone rebutted.
“It has nothing to do with precedent. It’s a situation where they’re happy with the bill as is, and they want to send it to the president,” he said.
Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said the process is far from perfect but necessary.
Likening vote-a-ramas to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s description of democracy, Gregg said, “It’s not a great idea, but it’s better than all the other ones. Basically, there’s no other way to protect the minority rights in the budget process other than the vote-a-rama.”
But over the years vote-a-ramas have become, at best, a chore and, at worst, a meaningless waste of time for many Members.
“I was so frustrated at how silly the whole process was — you know, this meaningless exercise in gotcha amendments,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said of the vote-a-rama during last year’s budget debate. “What would be better is for us all to act like adults and get in a room together on a bipartisan basis and change the rules and some of the procedures so they make more sense.”
Even journalists have been known to call vote-a-ramas the “Roach Motel,” because Senators go onto the floor but don’t emerge for hours. The moniker is a reference to an old commercial for cockroach bait, the tagline of which was “Roaches check in, but they don’t check out.”
Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said the togetherness is a vote-a-rama’s only redeeming quality.
“The only thing I’ve ever found worthwhile about a vote-a-rama is that, because the Senate has changed so much, you actually get to spend some time with your colleagues,” Dodd said, noting that in the past Senators spent more time in Washington and had an opportunity to get to know each other better.
“Today, because people leave on Thursday nights or Friday mornings and don’t come back until Monday night or Tuesday morning, they rarely get time with each other. And so the only redeeming value or virtue to them is you get to spend some time with your colleagues. Unfortunately, it’s 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 in the morning, so it’s not exactly the most opportune time to get to know each other. But other than that, I think the public just tunes it out.”