What on Earth Is a Vote-A-Rama?

The old, weird Senate procedure used to pass budget bills

Gary Cameron / Reuters

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is getting ready for a vote-a-rama this week. That sounds like an old, tired SNL skit, but don't be fooled—it's actually an old, tired Senate trick.

Well, not that tired. Here's the story: Sometimes, the Senate holds flurries of votes on budget resolutions. Debate on budget reconciliation bills is limited to 20 hours, and the resolutions can't be filibustered, so the only way to draw the process out is to offer amendments. This being the Senate, the opposition seldom misses the opportunity to do so. Once debate has ended, the amendments come in rapid fire. There could be literally dozens of amendments (there are often at least 20 or 30), but the time spent on them is minimal. In theory, there's not even time to debate, though as Keith Hennessey—who has a great primer on the topic—points out, they often waive the rules and allow each side gets a grand total of 30 seconds to debate, followed by a 10-minute vote. Then the next, and the next, and so on until everything is finished and everyone can go home for the night

This makes for a high-pressure environment. You often hear that legislators don't read the bills in front of them under normal circumstances, but that's in part because staffers are supposed to analyze the language and tell their bosses how to vote. In this case, with amendments coming up so quickly, it's harder to do that. Senators have complained that it's essentially impossible to tell what's going on, but staffers huddle in the party cloakrooms to try to suss it out as the votes are happening. The vote-a-rama could run for 10 hours or more, and the exhaustion is compounded by the fact that it comes at almost the end of a fractious budget process.

So why would this ever happen? They are infrequent; the last one was nearly three years ago, and many current senators have never experienced one. One reason for holding a vote-a-rama is to get things done quickly. Because of filibusters, holds, and other procedural tricks, much of the Senate's business has been reduced to a crawl. This allows Reid to get a lot done quickly. But there's also a chance for political grandstanding. The Wall Street Journal reports, for example, that Democrats will bring Paul Ryan's budget to the floor as an amendment to their own. They know they have the votes to defeat the amendment, so they want to force GOP senators to either vote for the bill, and risk being tarred as too conservative, or vote against it, and risk the appearance of divisions in the Republican ranks. Republicans, meanwhile, will offer amendments to do things like balance the budget within a short timeframe or oppose tax increases, making Democrats vote against them.

The timing for the vote-a-rama isn't clear yet, but it will start no later than 7 p.m. Friday. As for when it ends ... well, it could get late. Don't wait up for them.