Senate holds “vote-a-rama” as Democrats push forward on $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill

Washington — The Senate is expected to vote on a budget resolution sometime before the weekend, an important step to passing President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief proposal through the process of reconciliation, which allows legislation to pass with only a simple majority instead of the typical 60-vote threshold. 

But before there can be a final vote on the resolution, Republicans are forcing Democrats to go on the record with a series of votes on a slew of amendments in a politically painful process known as a “vote-a-rama.”

Democrats have pushed forward with the process of budget reconciliation to pass the relief legislation, meaning that they will be able to approve it without any Republican votes. Once both houses of Congress pass the budget resolution, which serves as the vehicle for the legislation, committees begin formulating a reconciliation bill itself. The reconciliation bill will receive 20 hours of debate, and then another “vote-a-rama” before a final vote.

Republicans have lined up hundreds of amendments before the vote on the budget resolution early Friday at the earliest and the Senate will likely vote on dozens of these amendments. A “vote-a-rama” is a Senate tradition in which the minority party attempts to put political pressure on the majority for trying to pass controversial legislation, and can often last into the early hours of the morning. This one has.

“We’re going to put senators on the record. Expect votes to stop Washington from actively killing jobs during a recovery — like terminating the Keystone pipeline; that job-killing, one-size-fits-all minimum wage hike; and whether to bar tax hikes on small businesses for the duration of this emergency,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday, calling the budget “phony” and “partisan.”

Many of the amendments brought forward by Republicans are expected to fail. But others have bipartisan support, such as an amendment proposed by Republican Senator Roger Wicker and Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema to boost the restaurant industry, which was approved with a vote of 90-10. The Senate also considered a bipartisan amendment introduced by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Republican Senator Susan Collins to prevent “upper income citizens” from receiving stimulus checks, although “upper income” was not defined.

Another amendment that passed on a bipartisan basis was introduced by GOP Senators Todd Young and Tom Cotton, and prohibited the government from providing direct checks to undocumented immigrants.

Some amendments that have failed include one introduced by Senator Scott and Senator Roy Blunt would have prohibited schools that do not reopen after teachers are vaccinated from receiving federal funds.

“Senate Republicans will be ready and waiting with a host of amendments to improve the rushed procedural step that’s being jammed through,” McConnell said Wednesday. “We’ll be getting senators on the record about whether taxpayers should fund checks for illegal immigrants, whether Democrats should raise taxes on small businesses in the midst of this historic crisis, and whether generous federal funding should pour into school districts where the unions refuse to let schools open. And this is just a small taste.”

Democrats have the narrowest possible majority in the Senate with 50 seats. This means that Vice President Kamala Harris will likely need to be on hand to cast any tie-breaking vote if all 50 Republicans vote to move forward on an amendment.

In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Democratic Senator Brian Schatz urged Americans to tune out the “vote-a-rama,” calling it a political stunt.

“We need to remember what this is all about. This is not about a goofy 10-hour or 12-hour or 15-hour process where we stack amendments and try to set each other up, that we’ll somehow trick someone into taking a bad position that can be turned into a campaign advertisement,” Schatz said. “It is nonsense, and everybody should ignore it if they can. Do anything to not watch vote-a-rama.”

In 2017, Republicans used budget reconciliation to pass a tax cut that cost nearly $2 trillion, and which primarily benefited higher income Americans and businesses. Democrats used the “vote-a-rama” process during the debate over that legislation in an unsuccessful attempt to bog down the bill with amendments.

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