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Thune breaks through Democratic bloc on ‘vote-a-rama’ amendments

Creative use of budget points of order allowed vulnerable Democrats to vote with GOP on some proposals without endangering broader bill

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks with reporters in between votes during the reconciliation bill "vote-a-rama" in the Capitol on Sunday, Aug. 7.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., speaks with reporters in between votes during the reconciliation bill "vote-a-rama" in the Capitol on Sunday, Aug. 7. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Democrats stuck together and mostly voted against amendments to their tax, climate and health care package, while using a procedural maneuver to allow their vulnerable incumbents to vote for some that could score political points without actually making any changes to the bill.

The chamber began voting on amendments to the budget reconciliation package in a free-for-all process known as a “vote-a-rama” around 11:30 p.m. Saturday. More than 15 hours later, after voting on 37 amendments and dilatory motions, the Senate concluded the “vote-a-rama” and proceeded to final passage.

Only the final two amendments offered were adopted — one from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and one from Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to replace part of Thune’s proposal.

Thune’s amendment to exempt portfolio companies of investment funds from the bill’s 15 percent corporate minimum tax was adopted, 57-43.

The seven Democrats who backed it then supported Warner’s amendment to replace Thune’s offset, a one-year extension of the $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions, with one they found more acceptable. Warner’s offset would extend limits on pass-through business losses that can be used to reduce other taxable income. His amendment was adopted 51-50, with a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris.

With the exception of the Thune amendment, the 48 Democrats and two independents who caucus with them banded together to oppose Republicans’ amendments, defeating the rest on party-line votes.

When Democrats wanted their members to be able to vote in favor of something, one of them would raise a budget point of order, triggering a motion to waive it that was subject to a 60-vote threshold instead of a simple majority.

That procedural maneuvering allowed the four Democrats considered most vulnerable in the November midterm elections — Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Mark Kelly of Arizona, Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire — as well as other party centrists to show their support for the underlying amendment. They could vote to waive the point of order without worrying about it being added to the bill and potentially undermining unified Democratic support for the larger package.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Cortez Masto, Kelly and Warnock’s races a Toss-up and Hassan’s Tilt Democratic.

Democrats jumped through the most procedural hoops to allow vulnerable members to vote to uphold the Title 42 public health directive that allows migrants crossing the border to seek asylum in the U.S. to be expelled during the pandemic.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., offered an amendment to provide $1 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to continue to implement Title 42 until 120 days after the termination of the COVID-19 public health emergency. Democrats all voted against that amendment and it was rejected, 50-50.

Immediately after that vote, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., offered an alternative amendment that would extend Title 42 until 60 days after the public health emergency ends with requirements for the administration to submit a plan to Congress to address a potential influx of migrants. The Tester amendment contained no funding so was subject to a budget point of order, which six Democrats joined all Republicans in voting to waive.

The Democrats who joined Tester in support for his amendment were Cortez Masto, Hassan, Kelly, Warnock and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. The motion to waive the budget point of order was not agreed to, 56-44.

Democrats also raised a budget point of order on an amendment from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would make it more difficult to export crude oil sold from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to China. That allowed four Democrats — Cortez Masto, Hassan, Warnock and Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff — to vote with Republicans to waive the point of order.

Superfund tax, Medicaid

A handful of Senate Democrats in tight reelection races voted to waive a budget point of order on a Hassan amendment to cut a section from the bill that would reestablish a tax to pay for the cleanup of toxic sites through the Superfund program. The bill would raise taxes on imported barrels of oil and other petroleum products from 9.7 cents to 16.4 cents, indexed to inflation.

Cortez Masto, Kelly, Sinema and Warnock joined Hassan in supporting her amendment, along with all 50 Republicans. The motion to waive the budget point of order was not agreed to, 55-45.

Separately, Warnock authored an amendment to make health care coverage available to low-income individuals in 12 states, including his own, that haven’t expanded their Medicaid programs under the 2010 health care law.

Senate Budget ranking member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., lodged a point of order that the amendment dealt with matters outside of the Finance panel’s jurisdiction and thus violated budget reconciliation rules. The vote to waive the point of order was not agreed to, 5-94. Ossoff, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., joined Warnock in support, as did a lone Republican: Maine’s Susan Collins.

The Democrats came closest to waiving budget rules to preserve another Warnock provision: capping insulin costs at $35 per month in the private health insurance market. Seven Republicans joined the Democrats in the 57-43 vote to waive the rules after Graham raised the budget point of order. The vote means the provision is no longer in the legislation.

Graham didn’t object to the cap on insulin costs for Medicare patients and that remained in the bill.

Somewhat solo Sanders

Democrats splintered on some budget points of order, but they remained more united in voting against amendments from Sanders to add Democratic priorities that were left out of the bill.

For example, the Vermont independent offered an amendment to provide $30 billion for climate resilience programs and activities, like establishing a Civilian Climate Corps, that was rejected, 1-98.

Sanders also offered two health amendments — one to ensure that Medicare pays no more than the Department of Veterans Affairs for prescription drugs, and one to add provisions expanding Medicare coverage for hearing, dental and vision benefits. Both were rejected, by votes of 1-99 and 3-97, respectively. The hearing, dental and vision amendment earned the support of Warnock and Ossoff.

Sanders offered a separate amendment that would have extended for five years the more generous child tax credit rules that lapsed at the start of this year, paid for by increasing the corporate tax rate. Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Michael Bennet of Colorado, both child tax credit supporters, spoke against the amendment, arguing it could bring down the entire carefully negotiated bill. It was defeated, 1-97.

Sanders also stood alone in a 1-99 vote rejecting his amendment that would strike the extension of a tax credit for carbon oxide sequestration for some facilities, remove $150 million for the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management and remove a cap on royalty fees for offshore oil and gas leasing that would be set by the bill.

Few GOP defections

Republicans remained united on most amendments, but not all.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., voted with Democrats in opposition to an amendment from Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, that would adjust income limits for the maximum capital gains tax rate and certain tax credits for inflation and exclude certain qualified interest from taxable gross income in 2023 and 2024. The amendment would offset those revenue losers with a one-year extension of the $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions and a $20 billion cut to the IRS funding in the bill.

And Collins voted against an amendment from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that would take $460 million out of the bill’s $4.3 billion for rebates to homeowners and apartment buildings to install energy efficient upgrades, and shift the money to the “payment in lieu of taxes” program which helps local governments offset the loss of tax revenue in areas dominated by tax-exempt federal lands.

Collins also voted against a Cruz motion to commit the bill to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to ensure the measure didn’t make funds available to the District of Columbia to enforce a requirement that students be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend public or charter schools. By a 49-51 vote, the motion wasn’t agreed to.

GOP amendments

The rest of the amendments and motions the Senate voted on were defeated on party-line votes. Those include amendments from:

  • Graham to strike provisions that would reinstate and raise the Hazardous Substance Superfund tax rate on crude oil and replace that revenue with a one-year extension of a $10,000 cap on deductions for state and local taxes.
  • John Barrasso, R-Wyo., to require the Bureau of Land Management to hold oil and gas lease sales in every state where it did so in June 2022.
  • Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., to strike $45 million in funding for the EPA to implement eight sections of the Clean Air Act.
  • Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, to prohibit the IRS from using the $80 billion in mandatory funding that would be appropriated to the agency under the bill from being used to audit taxpayers earning less than $400,000 a year.
  • Roger Marshall, R-Kan., to exclude drugs in Medicare’s six protected classes or those that receive breakthrough designation from the Food and Drug Administration from price negotiation.
  • John Kennedy, R-La., to require oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s Cook Inlet.
  • Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., to require the Interior secretary to complete pending coal leasing processes that are paused at the Bureau of Land Management.
  • Cruz to strike the measure’s $80 billion for the IRS, including for stepped-up tax enforcement efforts.
  • Kennedy to lower insulin costs by re-implementing a rule for discounting insulin for federally qualified health centers.
  • Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, to provide $500 million to build or improve fencing and barriers along the southwest border. The money would come from the Office of the Chief Readiness Support Officer in the Homeland Security Department.
  • Rob Portman, R-Ohio, to re-steer $500 million from the same office to help detect illegal narcotics.
  • Steve Daines, R-Mont., to adjust oil and gas leasing royalty rates.
  • Deb Fischer, R-Neb., to prohibit electric vehicles costing more than $42,000 from being eligible for tax credits under the bill and lowering income eligibility for those credits.
  • Barrasso to create a tax deduction for mining costs relating to intangible drilling and other expenses, paid for with a permanent extension of the SALT cap.
  • Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to provide $500 million for the Energy Department to support adoption of building energy codes that meet certain energy saving standards and $400 million for the Bureau of Land Management to finalize outstanding permits for projects that would facilitate access to nickel and cobalt deposits.

Mark Burnett, Kathleen Bever, Paul M. Krawzak, and Sandhya Raman, Ariel Cohen, Laura Weiss and David Lerman contributed to this report.


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