What’s in a Vote-a-Rama?

What’s in a Vote-a-Rama?

Maybe it’s just a simple matter of physics: The bigger and more hulking the thing is, the heavier and harder it is to move.

Or maybe it’s just a matter of the Senate, where moving any legislation at all can often feel like a World’s Strongest Man competition.

Either way, Democratic leaders in the chamber are not exactly coasting along as they push to get President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed on a party-line vote. First there was the fight over the Fight for 15: Democrats were forced last week to let go of a key provision that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, after the Senate parliamentarian ruled it didn’t belong in a bill passed through the budgetary reconciliation process — which Democrats are using to avoid a Republican filibuster.

Then last night, the Senate remained in session past 2 a.m. after Senator Ron Johnson, a conservative Republican from Wisconsin, demanded that the bill be read in full. And all day today, Democrats held a so-called vote-a-rama, considering dozens of amendments in a test of the party’s unity, one vote at a time.

Our Washington reporter Emily Cochrane has been The Times’s boots on the ground throughout the process, and she took a moment out of a whirlwind afternoon to help catch us up on where things stand.

First off, what the heck is a vote-a-rama? Is it as fun as it sounds?

A spectacle only arcane Senate rules could create. And yes, it’s actually called that.

Essentially, it’s a rapid-fire series of amendments that ends only when 100 senators agree that they would rather sleep than force politically fraught votes on one another. Democrats have chosen a fast-track process — known as reconciliation — to pass the stimulus plan, which allows them to craft and pass the bill with a simple majority and avoid Republican opposition and the Senate filibuster. The vote-a-rama is a chance for Republicans — or whoever happens to be in the minority — to register complaints and force votes on tough issues that can be grist for political attack ads.

It ends when senators stop offering amendments, and this is a legislative body with impressive stamina.

There are still a few sticking points as Democrats vote their way through the pieces of this bill. The unemployment benefit extension has pitted some moderates and liberals against one another. Also, some senators have insisted on a vote for the $15 minimum wage, though the parliamentarian has ruled out including it in this bill. What key points of contention are Democrats still working through?

Right now, as of 4:37 p.m., the whole process has ground to a halt because there is not unanimous Democratic agreement over the unemployment insurance provisions. One moderate, Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, appears to have signaled that he does not yet support the Democratic compromise for providing a weekly supplemental benefit through Oct. 4, and Democrats cannot afford to lose a single vote on any issue with Republicans expected to be united against the bill.

There could also be additional issues with state and local funding amendments. But we won’t know until they start voting.

Senator Ron Johnson insisted yesterday that the entire bill be read on the Senate floor. That kept the chamber in session well into the wee hours of this morning, and it amounted to a strident demonstration of the G.O.P.’s unified opposition to this bill. The legislation is widely popular with the public, so why is the Republican caucus so firmly against it?

With job numbers slowly improving and vaccinations increasing across the country, Republicans have argued that the bill is too costly and is not directly targeted to the pandemic. They have singled out specific provisions as overreaching and say that the bill is designed to satisfy a longtime wish list of Democratic priorities, instead of addressing the pandemic recovery. And some Republicans are betting that, similar to the Obama stimulus during the Great Recession, voters will soon grow disillusioned with so much spending and federal overreach.

It’s looking as if this will be another late night in the Senate. By the time tomorrow morning rolls around, where do you think we’ll be? And what are the major steps that need to be taken before it can land on President Biden’s desk?

Define morning. I mean, when I got to the Capitol at about 9:15 this morning, I was hearing estimates of the vote-a-rama ending anywhere between 2 and 5 a.m. — and that was before they kept an amendment vote open for more than five hours in order to haggle over the terms of the unemployment provision.

There will be a vote on final passage at the end of the vote-a-rama. Once this gets through — again, who knows when that will be — it will need to be passed by the House for a second time because there have been some significant changes, including removing the minimum wage increase and changing the income threshold for direct payments. Then it heads to the president’s desk.

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