Vote-a-Rama: Stay Tuned for Drama

For the United States Senate, which likes to be referred to as the "Upper Chamber," the term "vote-a-rama" does not sound too dignified. But the term, which could be some type of amusement park ride, will likely describe the Republican plan to slow down Democrats' plans to pass health reform through the budget reconciliation process. As bizarre as the budget process is, the "vote-a-rama" is a bit stranger.

Under the 1974 Budget Act and later amendments, the Senate floor debate on reconciliation bills is limited to 20 hours and no filibusters are allowed. However, the law does not limit the number of amendments that can be considered. And so, in the past, senators have offered amendments, and amendments, and more amendments. And then the senators vote. And vote. And vote.

Usually, the two parties reach a unanimous consent agreement that allows senators a few minutes to debate each amendment for a few minutes even though the 20 hours have expired. As the Senate prepares to consider health reform as a reconciliation bill, Republicans may offer dozens of amendments to the bill as a means for derailing it or at least, slowing its passage. If the past is any indication, senators will bring other work to the floor and stay at their desks, as the votes drag on.

Economist Keith Hennessey is credited with coining the term "vote-a-rama" to describe such a chaotic reconciliation session when he was a staffer on the Senate Budget Committee. The number of votes can be mind-boggling. The Congressional Research Service reports that in 2000, the Senate considered 38 amendments to that year’s reconciliation bill, with many of them coming during a "vote-a-rama;" in 2001, there were 59 amendments and in 2003, 65. Senators have proposed amendments whose the subject matter ranged from the budgetary to everything but the budget. In 1995, one such amendment was a Sense of the Senate resolution condemning the violence in Yugoslavia.

The process has been used by--and has frustrated--both parties. Republicans plan to use the "vote-a-rama" this year. But in 2003, when they were trying to pass President Bush's tax cuts under reconciliation procedures, Republican senators expressed outrage at the number of amendments offered by the Democrats. Then-Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) told the New York Times that the reconciliation voting session amounted to a political game. However, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wa., said, in the same New York Times story, that that the amendments were on issues "heartfelt" by constituents and that if Democrats did not offer the amendments, their constituents' voices would not be heard.

Stay tuned. This time, the parties' roles are going to be reversed.