Senate preps for grueling weekend ‘vote-a-rama’ as Democrats push sweeping climate, health care bill

WASHINGTON – It’s a rare weekend session for the Senate as Democrats push  to pass their ambitious climate, health care and tax spending bill before they leave Capitol Hill for their traditional August recess. 

Democrats are advancing the bill, called the Inflation Reduction Act, through the budget reconciliation process, which means they have to clear a few procedural hurdles to send the bill to the House and eventually President Joe Biden’s desk. 

Inflation Reduction Act details:Sen. Joe Manchin and Senate Leader Schumer reach deal on energy, drug prices, taxes

What’s the budget reconciliation process? 

Senate Democrats will use the budget reconciliation process to move the bill, allowing them to avoid the 60-vote threshold to overcome a Republican filibuster. The process allows the bill to pass with 50 votes, meaning all they need is a strict-party line vote with their 50-50 majority (Vice President Kamala Harris would cast a tie-breaking vote). No Republicans are expected to support the final version.

The process has one major caveat – provisions in the bill must be related to the budget in some capacity. Any bill that is on track to reconciliation must first go through the Senate Parliamentarian, who combs through the bill for any violation of what’s been dubbed the Byrd Rule. It was named after Virginia Democratic Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., a fiscal hawk. 

On Saturday morning, Democrats got some good news when they learned that Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough deemed that reconciliation could be applied to large parts of the bill regarding climate initiatives and allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug costs for seniors.

” … We are one step closer to finally taking on Big Pharma and lowering Rx drug prices for millions of Americans,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, speaks during a news conference about the Inflation Reduction Act outside the U.S. Capitol on August 4, 2022 in Washington, DC.

What led up to this?

Last week, Schumer, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., unexpectedly announced a deal on a massive spending bill that would combat climate change, reduce prescription drug prices and lower the federal deficit. 

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks to reporters outside of his office in the Hart Senate Office Building on August 02, 2022 in Washington, DC.

With Republicans expected to do well in the November midterm elections, the bill  could present a potentially huge victory for Biden and congressional Democrats after they had lost faith in Manchin for shooting down the president’s much more ambitious Build Back Better plan last year. 

What happens first and when?

The Senate will reconvene Saturday at noon and votes are scheduled to start at 12:30 p.m. ET. 

The first vote will be a procedural vote on a motion to proceed. From there, senators can debate for up to 20 hours on amendments, equally divided between senators in both parties.

Senators can either keep debating up to 20 hours or yield back their time and cut the debate short. Democrats are expected not to use up their 10 hours but Republicans might do so since they want to slow down the process. 

Once the 20-hour clock runs out or both parties yield their time, a “vote-a-rama” on the individual amendments begins. 

What’s a vote-a-rama?

In a vote-a-rama, senators can offer up an unlimited amount of amendments to a bill but the process is expedited.

There is only one minute allocated for debate, equally divided between both sides. Then, senators are given 10 minutes to vote. This process repeats for every single amendment. 

Senators, their staffers and reporters alike are gearing up for a grueling and torturous slog as the vote-a-rama is expected to go through the night and into Sunday.  

The last time the Senate held a vote-a-rama was when it adopted a budget resolution for fiscal year 2022 last August. Senators offered up 43 amendments for a vote, leading to a session that lasted around 14 hours.  

What’s the point of it?

Most amendments are expected to come from Republicans, who are furious over the deal which was negotiated without their input. 

Republican-proposed amendments are expected to fail. But the vote-a-rama will allow Republicans to make Democrats vote on tough issues that could be used for ads on the campaign trail this falll.

The deal also incited the anger of some on the left, who have criticized the bill’s investment in new fossil fuel development – likely due to the importance natural gas and coal are to the economy of Manchin’s home state. 

Progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on the Senate floor Wednesday,  urged lawmakers “to do everything possible to take on the greed of the fossil fuel industry,” and promised to offer an amendment nixing fossil fuel investments in the bill. 

Sanders’ amendment is expected to fail as the bill is contingent on Manchin’s support.

Once all proposed amendments are voted on and senators agree on the final language of the bill, then it will head to a final vote. Assuming Schumer keeps all his Democratic colleagues in line, the bill is expected pass in a party-line vote of 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.

“Look, (Republicans are) going to do lots of amendments, we don’t know what else they will do but as I said, I believe we will have 50 votes to pass this legislation at the end of the day,” Schumer said during a Friday press conference. 

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