I spent 7+ years as a staffer for Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) and for Senate Majority (& Minority) Leader Trent Lott (R-MS). One of my few lasting contributions is the term vote-a-rama. I therefore feel obliged to provide a formal definition.

vote-a-rama: (n) an extended sequence of back-to-back votes in the United States Senate. A side effect of special rules for considering the budget resolution or a reconciliation bill, a vote-a-rama may last 10, 20, 30 hours or more, and occurs after all time for debate has expired but before a vote on final passage.

At any point in time, the Senate is debating a question. Some examples include:

  • Should the amendment by Senator X be adopted?
  • Should the President’s nomination of person Y be approved?
  • Should the bill as amended be passed?

Most of these questions are debatable and cannot be “moved.” This means that no one Senator can force a vote on a question until all 100 Senators are done debating. This differs from the House, in which a vote can be forced at a specific time even if some Members object. This apparently minor procedural difference has an enormous impact on the legislative structure of the two bodies.

In practice it means that long periods of time usually elapse between votes. On a typical legislative day Senators might cast only a few votes, spread throughout the day. On a particularly contentious question one or more Senators may engage in extended debate, more commonly known as a filibuster. There is a special procedure to shut off a filibuster called invoking cloture, but until that procedure is completed, no Senate vote may occur for several days.

Each year the House and the Senate must pass a budget resolution that is a quantitative blueprint for the consideration of legislation in that year. A 1974 law sets out special Senate rules for the consideration of a budget resolution. Unlike normal legislation, which can be debated for weeks on end, this law limits the total debate time for a budget resolution to 50 hours.

This same law limits debate time for a reconciliation bill to 20 hours. Debate time for a conference report on a budget resolution or on a reconciliation bill is limited to 10 hours.

While the law limits time for debate on a budget resolution or reconciliation bill, it does not limit time for consideration of either. Consideration = debate + votes. In addition, the Senate cannot vote on final passage of a budget resolution or reconciliation bill until all amendments have been disposed of (basically, voted on).

The interaction of time limited debate, no time limit on consideration, and the requirement that amendments be disposed of before final passage creates an opportunity for Senators. Any Senator can offer one or more amendments to a budget resolution or reconciliation bill and know they will get a quick vote. This is quite different from the process on a normal bill, where you can offer an amendment but not be assured of a quick vote.

As a result, Senators offer lots of amendments to budget resolutions and reconciliation bills. A handful or two of these amendments are debated and voted upon during the 50 or 20 hours of debate, but the rest stack up at the end, after debate time has expired.

And thus was born the vote-a-rama. After 20 hours of debate have expired for a reconciliation bill, all remaining amendments are stacked for back-to-back votes. Unlike normal times, where Senators will come to the floor and hang out for half an hour for two stacked votes, then leave, the vote-a-rama can take 10 hours, 20 hours, or even more.

In theory a normal roll call vote in the Senate lasts 15 minutes. Senators dawdle so it usually takes about 20 minutes. During a vote-a-rama all 100 Senators agree to reduce the time for a vote to 10 minutes, which in practice means 15. This means the Senate can do four votes per hour in the vote-a-rama. As an example, the Senate disposed of nearly 30 amendments and motions yesterday, staying until almost 3 AM. The Senate reconvened at 9:45 AM today and expects the vote-a-rama to continue until about 2 PM. After the final amendment is disposed of, the Senate will vote on final passage of the reconciliation bill.

Usually the Senate agrees to waive the rules precluding debate during the vote-a-rama to allow the sponsor and an opponent of each amendment or motion 30 seconds each (!) to speak before the vote.

The vote-a-rama is an unusual cultural institution within the Senate. All 100 Senators are on the floor, in the cloakrooms, or right outside the Senate Chamber for hours and hours upon end. Another 100-ish staff are packed onto tiny staff benches in the rear of the Chamber, one for Republican staff and another for Democratic staff. Everyone is usually exhausted during the vote-a-rama, which comes near the end of an arduous and usually conflict-ridden legislative battle.

(photo credit: C-SPAN 2 live feed)