Senate Begins Budget Political Theater With $3.5 Trillion at Stake

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Once again, the Senate will begin a marathon “vote-a-rama,” dealing with dozens of nonbinding amendments before the one vote that counts, passage of a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint.

During a vote-a-rama, any senator can keep the process going by offering new amendments for votes until he or she runs out of steam.
Credit...T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Aug. 10, 2021Updated 5:49 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — Some senators have tried to ban the process. Others simply say it’s the worst part of their jobs.

Even Senator Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who created and fortified some of the chamber’s most complex rules before his death, warned the so-called vote-a-rama process could “send some old men to their deaths.”

Still on Tuesday, as the Senate turned to a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint that begins the Democrats’ push to expand the social safety net, the tradition of considering hours upon hours of nonbinding budget amendments will once again get underway — with senators forcing politically sensitive votes on their rivals as campaign operatives compile a record for possible attack ads.

Only one vote really matters: If all 50 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents give final approval to the blueprint, Senate committees can begin work this fall on the most significant expansion of the safety net since the 1960s, knowing that legislation cannot be filibustered under the Senate’s complicated budget rules.

But before that final vote, which looked set to come either late Tuesday or early Wednesday, senators were having to deal with a blizzard of advisory amendments, and like every vote-a-rama that preceded it, it was painful.

“It’s a little bit like an extended visit to a dentist,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “The whole process is an exercise in ‘gotchas.’”

The Budget Act limits Senate debate to 50 hours on a budget resolution, but over time the Senate has developed its vote-a-rama custom, which allows for an accelerated voting procedure on amendments even after the 50 hours have expired. In recent years, the practice has allowed just minutes of debate for each amendment followed by a short vote.

In practice, any senator can prolong the process by offering new amendments for votes until he or she runs out of steam. The result is a procedural food fight with a silly name that does little other than keep Capitol denizens up past their bedtimes and cause twinges of political pain. (Vote-a-RAHM-a? Vote-a-RAM-a? Depends on the senator.)

The amendments can range from the serious to the absurd. During a debate over health care in 2010, Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, forced a vote banning coverage of erectile dysfunction drugs for convicted sex offenders as a way to try to embarrass Democrats who supported the legislation. That prompted Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, to condemn the amendment as a “mockery of this Senate.”

But the power of the political “gotcha” is diminishing with overuse. This is the third vote-a-rama this year alone. During the last episode in March — the longest open vote in modern Senate history — the Senate entertained 37 votes on amendments. During February’s vote-a-rama, there were 41.

Should Democrats successfully pass the blueprint and draft a multi-trillion-dollar package, a fourth vote-a-rama is expected in the fall.

“The budget resolution is usually the platform for political theater, and both sides having votes that are designed to make a statement because none of it is binding,” said Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, who plans to retire next year.

Both parties have historically lamented the vote-a-rama process, but neither wants to give it up. Typically, the party in the minority — in this case, the Republicans — revels in the uncomfortable votes it can force upon the majority party that typically controls the chamber, its floor time and what gets voted on.

Republicans hammered Democrats on Tuesday over the size of the spending package, the planned tax increases to pay for it and liberal proposals to rein in climate change, which they deride as part of the “Green New Deal.”

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Credit...T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Senators filed hundreds of amendments, including a list from Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, setting up votes to, among other things, add to the budget 100,000 police officers and promote a “patriotic education in K-12 schools” that teaches “students to love America.”

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, had previously vowed “to ferociously attack” the Democrats’ plans. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, said on Tuesday that Senate staff members had processed hundreds of amendments and pledged that “every single senator will be going on the record over and over and over.”

Democrats largely appeared sanguine before the whole exercise. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent in charge of the Senate Budget Committee, said his plan was simply “to defeat all of the poison pill amendments.”

“That’s the whole point,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts. “They want to try to make us take what they think will be votes that they can use in television ads. This isn’t about legislating. This is just about jockeying for political advantage.”

“We’ll have to endure a certain amount of that,” she added, “but we’ll get the budget resolution passed.”

Even Republicans acknowledged that, at least with the budget blueprint, it would ultimately be a fruitless endeavor to derail a proposal that Democrats said they had the votes for.

“We just continue to have conversations with colleagues on the other side of the aisle, encourage them not to support it, but I just think we’re going to get rolled,” said Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa. “They’ll wipe the slate clean at the end of the process.”

Occasionally, though, a binding vote can take place. Republicans, for instance, could try to insist the Judiciary Committee be cut out of the budget reconciliation process, thus blocking the inclusion of a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. (But the committee’s inclusion also meant a wider array of amendments could be considered under Senate rules, given the committee’s expansive jurisdiction.)

The votes also occasionally produce a moment of truth for politicians. After many Democrats hemmed and hawed over stating their views on a $15 minimum wage this year, a forced vote on an amendment during the vote-a-rama in March revealed seven of the chamber’s more centrist Democrats opposed the increase.

Despite the political risks, Mr. Baker said the votes during a vote-a-rama did not typically end up substantially hurting political candidates. Constituents tend to judge their senators on major policy issues, not votes that fly by, often after midnight.

“Those kinds of votes can prove to be problematic but in a torrent of amendments, I think it becomes part of the noise,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they’re not going to be scared about it.”

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