Is Senate’s ‘vote-a-rama’ plan democracy in action – or a ‘Tower of Babel’?

Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., accompanied by Schumer’s wife, Iris Weinshall, during a a mock swearing-in ceremony. Schumer will lead an effort to dilute Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare.
Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., accompanied by Schumer’s wife, Iris Weinshall, during a a mock swearing-in ceremony. Schumer will lead an effort to dilute Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare. AP

Get ready for the U.S. Senate to practice democracy in action Wednesday. And practice it and practice it and practice it.

On tap is a vote-a-rama starting Wednesday afternoon, a nonstop series of votes that in the past has stretched into the predawn hours of the next day.

To Democrats, the marathon is another part of a Republican effort to confuse and overwhelm the public about where the GOP is headed with health care, ethics and a host of other controversial matters.

At the same time the vote-a-rama begins, the Senate is likely to be holding confirmation hearings on nominees for some of the executive branch’s most sensitive agencies, notably the Justice and State departments.

Democratic leaders met with then-president Barack Obama on Jan. 4, 2017 to discuss the future of his signature healthcare law. "They're like the dog who caught the bus," said Schumer of his Republican colleagues.

“I think they’ve coordinated all the activities just to create a tower of Babel that will make it more difficult for the public to be able understand the specifics of any one thing that is taking place,” said Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

Originally, six confirmation hearings were scheduled Wednesday, but three have been delayed. “This is a good first step,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., “but there is more road to travel.”

Republicans dismissed Democrats’ charges as nonsense. “Last year they complained we were moving too slowly,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats. Until President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in Jan. 20, Democrats need 50 votes to succeed, since Vice President Joe Biden would break a tie.

Hour after hour, the 100 senators will say “aye” or “nay” to dozens of amendments, one at a time. The changes will be offered mostly by Democrats trying to derail or at least tweak the Republican measure aimed at repealing Obamacare.

“This is not a great public service,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

Vote-a-ramas often occur during consideration of the federal budget blueprint. The process moves quickly, there’s rarely time for debate before individual votes and the votes are nonbinding.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Wednesday discussed plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's controversial health care law. Pence was on Capitol Hill to meet with Republican congressional leaders to discuss strategy.

This vote-a-rama is the result of Senate rules that limit debate on the overall Obamacare repeal measure to 50 hours. Offering lots of amendments allows senators to stretch out the process – and call more attention to their views.

Each vote is supposed to take about 15 minutes, as the clerk calls out each senator’s name in somber, monosyllabic tones and they answer “aye” or “nay” or stick their thumbs up or down. Even amendments that pass usually have little effect on the legislative outcome, as they often simply express the sense of the Senate and have no force of law.

Their chief value is “they force people to go on the record,” said Keith Hennessey, a former Senate Budget Committee staff member who’s now a lecturer at the Stanford University School of Business.

85% Percentage of people who favor allowing young adults to remain on their parents’ policies until age 26, according to a November Kaiser Family Foundation poll

During the vote-a-rama, the 100 senators usually stay in or around the Senate chamber. If the voting goes into the night, they can rest on the couches or easy chairs (no cots!) or conduct business in adjacent rooms.

Many Republicans see the vote-a-rama as a needless legislative carnival. “It would not break my heart if we did away with them,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said of the marathon. In 2013, when Democrats controlled the Senate, Republicans were more eager for the all-night marathon.

Democrats on Tuesday viewed the proceedings as an important first step in slowing any Republican momentum for repeal. And they hope to score some political points.

“It’s great messaging,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

Wednesday’s amendments are expected to try to put senators on the record supporting or opposing popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The November Kaiser Family Foundation poll, for instance, showed overwhelming support for allowing people under 26 to remain on their parents’ policies.

Four years ago, the vote-a-rama took 13 hours, involved voting on 101 amendments and ended at 4:56 a.m.. In 2015, the marathon began in the afternoon, involved 40 amendments and lasted until 4:22 a.m. the next day.

So far this time, senators have proposed 105 amendments.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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