Dragging Out ‘Vote-a-Rama’ Wouldn’t Kill Health Care Bill: Ex-Senator

By Jonathan Nicholson

Budget reconciliation would allow Senate Democrats to slow down GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but it wouldn’t succeed in killing such legislation, according to former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).

Democrats, facing the prospect of a vote in the June 26 week on the Senate version of the Republicans’ ACA repeal bill released in draft form June 22, have already begun to use parliamentary procedures to slow the chamber’s work pace. But they are unlikely to use what some in their political base have advocated: endless amendments once debate time on the underlying bill has expired as a sort of filibuster.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, declined to rule out the idea recently.

“I think it is absolutely imperative that all of us do everything that we can, in every way, to defeat that legislation. I think that’s what the American people want and that’s what we have to do. So we’ll look at all options,” he told Bloomberg BNA June 13.

But while Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has gone along with moves to slow the pace at which the often-sluggish Senate operates, he hasn’t said anything about using the “vote-a-rama” process allowed by reconciliation against the ACA repeal.

Deliver a Message

Under the budget reconciliation process, bills carrying out directives in the annual budget resolution are immune to filibuster in the Senate. Debate is limited to 20 hours, though the floor remains open for amendments to be considered. The result of that is “vote-a-rama,” a marathon series of rapid-fire votes on amendments that often lasts early into the next morning.

While senators often complain that vote-a-rama wastes their time with votes on amendments they haven’t had time to consider and that could be politically troublesome, neither party has been willing to forgo it as it provides one of the few times in the Senate that the minority party is able to force unwanted votes on the majority party. There is no set end to vote-a-rama, other than lawmaker exhaustion.

That led Gregg to consider in 2010, when the second bill to put final touches on the Affordable Care Act was being considered under reconciliation, to hold it up with a filibuster-by-amendment strategy, essentially to keep filing and demanding votes on amendments. Ultimately, he and the party leadership vetoed that idea.

“We tactically decided we wanted to deliver a message. We wanted the message to be clear and we didn’t want the message to be that we were just being procedurally dilatory. We wanted it to be substantive on what was wrong with the ACA, or Obamacare,” Gregg said by phone from New Hampshire.

‘It’s Not a Filibuster’

Gregg said the filibuster-by-amendment strategy can’t win because it is, in fact, only a delaying action, not one that can change a likely vote outcome.

“It’s not a filibuster because you can’t win.” he said. “It’s not going to go on forever. At some point, all members get disgusted with voting in the middle of the night, having unlimited debate on amendments. It comes to an end.”

Still, Gregg said, some senators will demand a vote on their pet amendments, and leadership in 2010 allowed those votes to take place in the vote-a-rama after the initial debate time was used up on the main amendments.

“We had Bernie Sanders types on our side, that were going to offer their amendments, no matter what we did. At the time, we had Jim DeMint, for example,” Gregg said, referring to a former Republican senator from South Carolina.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Nicholson in Washington at jnicholson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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