The Republican v. Democratic feud over health care reform may be headed into a new and equally entertaining phase known as a “vote-a-rama,” suggests Steven S. Smith, PhD, a congressional scholar at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Democrats can use the reconciliation process to avoid a Republican filibuster on health care, but Republicans would still have the option of offering hundreds of amendments to the reconciliation bill,” Smith explains.
“There are no limits on how many amendments can be offered, and since each one has to be voted up-or-down, the process could drag on forever, hence the name, vote-a-rama.”
Smith, a leading authority on congressional rules and parliamentary procedures, is the Kate M. Gregg Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences in Arts & Sciences and director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University.
Under Senate rules, debate on reconciliation measures is limited to 20 hours. Although no filibusters are allowed during the reconciliation process, every proposed amendment that qualifies for consideration must be put to a vote.
“A vote-a-rama can’t stop the legislation dead in its tracks, but it can be a very effective stalling device, one that has the potential to turn public opinion on health care reforms, and perhaps derail the whole process,” Smith suggests.
Smith says Republican strategists will be looking to develop an array of uncomfortable amendments to propose, each designed to force Democrats facing re-election to make tough choices.
To get the reconciliation and health care reform bills passed, some Democrats may be forced to vote against amendments they personally supported in the past, including issues, such as a public option for government-provided health care insurance, that already divide the Democratic coalition. Democrats who vote against amendments they once championed can expect to be attacked in future elections for flip-flop votes on sensitive issues.
Unfortunately, says Smith, politicians on both sides of the battle are likely to make decisions based not on what’s best for the American people, but on what stance best positions them, or their party, to do well in the next election.
“Both sides must weigh how their actions will be viewed by voters, and that can be a delicate calculation,” Smith explains.“Republicans warn that Democrats will pay dearly at the polls if they use reconciliation to push an unpopular health care package into law, but Republicans also risk being seen as obstructionist if they step over the line in their attempts to derail the process.”
The Democrats, it seems, have done the math and determined that the electoral downsides of using heavy-handed tactics to push health care reform into law will be less than the damage done by having tried and failed.
While reconciliation allows Democrats to side-step a Republican filibuster, some argue Democrats would be better off if they forced Republicans to use the tactic.
“Some say Democrats should push the Republicans into using the filibuster and then let it drag on for weeks and weeks, creating a messy spectacle that has the potential to brake the back of the filibuster process.
“I don’t buy this argument,” Smith says, “because both sides have too much too lose. Republicans could easily end up looking like obstructionists, and Democrats would squander any hopes of moving on to other important legislation on their agenda. Each side has to decide what price they’re willing to pay.”
Smith contends the ongoing gridlock and partisan squabbling in Congress may fuel a push for a substantial overhaul of the filibuster process and other parliamentary procedures, but he doesn’t expect to see a move in this direction until after the next election. Until then, we can look forward to more threats of filibusters, nuclear options and quite possibly, a vote-a-rama.
Smith is director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy and the Kate M. Gregg Professor of Social Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. His most recent essay on 50 years of parliamentary battles in the U.S. Senate is available online: