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What Happened to the Senate?

March 24, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

The U.S. Senate prides itself on being the world’s greatest deliberative body. But if you turn on C-SPAN 2 right now, you’ll see a Senate devolved into thoughtless obstruction and petty politicking. For the Senate as an institution, there is nothing “great” about what they are going to spend the rest of the night doing.

Since Monday, the Senate has been trying to get to an up-or-down vote on the Reconciliation Act of 2010, which makes a series of “fixes” to the new health care reform law and reforms the student loan industry. It’s being considered under budget reconciliation rules, which limits debate time to 20 hours and denies the minority the ability to filibuster.

But, even though they can’t filibuster, Senate Republicans are blocking the vote by forcing the Senate into an absurd process known as a “vote-a-rama.” It’s what happens when the time that is set aside for debate on a bill has ended, but there are still amendments pending that need to be voted on. The remaining amendments are brought up one by one and, without debate, voted on quickly and either adopted or rejected. No deliberation.

The vote-a-rama is generally associated with the annual budgeting process. Each year, dozens of amendments are voted on and several of them adopted to the budget bill that sets out the annual congressional spending plan. Those amendments then affect what the appropriations committees do in fulfilling the budget outline and what Congress does legislatively for the rest of the year. They don’t have the force of law, but they are typically taken seriously as a sign of Congress’ will and followed.

But this vote-a-rama is different. It’s still about policy, but in a totally convoluted way. By proposing frivolous and controversial amendments, the Republicans are trying to set the Democrats up to take embarassing votes, knowing that they are trying to vote en bloc against amending the bill so as to avoid having to send it back to the House of Representatives. The ultimate goal being, of course, to use these votes against the Democrats in the upcoming election to help them win back enough seats in Congress to change or repeal the health care bill.

So, for example, Sen. Tom Coburn [R, OK] is forcing a vote on an amendment to bar insurance companies from covering erectile dysfunction drugs for people convicted of child molestation or rape. I’m sure you can imagine the kinds of attack ads that will be generated from a vote like that.

You can see all the Republican amendments submitted th ethe reconciliation bill so far here.

The Democratic strategy is to hold strong and vote together to block all of the amendments. They want to avoid amending the bill because it would mean that the House would have to pass the amended version again. Any Senate amendments could tip the balance in the House and cause the bill to fail there. It only passed by a margin of four votes the first time around.

The Democrats are committed to getting the reconciliation bill done because it would get rid of some of the most popular, earmark-like provision in the new health care reform law, stuff like extra Medicare money for Louisiana, Medicare Advantage perks for Florida and a carve-out of cuts to Medicare for Nebraska.

Republicans oppose these earmarky provisions too. In fact, they have been using them repeatedly to attack the health care bill. So you might think they would want to be on the side of voting to strip them from the bill. But they are on the Senate floor right now using every tactic they can to fight against the bill that would take them out. Why? Because they want the Democrats to be stuck with the bad parts of their health care law so they can use those against them in November too.

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