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Senate moves toward setting up consideration of Covid relief package — but first: Vote-a-rama

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At some point in the next 24 hours — after a long process of voting on a series of amendments — the Senate will pass their budget resolution to unlock their ability to write and pass a major Covid-relief bill with just 51 votes.

A reminder: the budget resolution is not the Covid-relief bill. It is just the shell that gives committees the ability to go on and write the Covid-relief bill and eventually pass it with just a simple majority.

First, however, lawmakers are going through what is known as a budget vote-a-rama.

Usually in the legislative process, lawmakers can use a series of procedural maneuvers to avoid voting on amendments. In a budget resolution, you can’t do that. You cannot hold a final vote on a budget resolution until all the amendments have been “disposed of” or in simpler terms “voted on.” The practice involves votes on a series of amendments that can stretch for hours (and hours). There’s a lot of snacks and (sometimes refreshments of the alcoholic variety) involved in helping members get through the evening.

None of these amendments are binding. None of the amendments change the underlying bill. But, the amendment votes serve as a way for each party to force the other side on the record about controversial issues. This is where future political ads are born.

Among the first significant votes was passage of an amendment that members discussed at their bipartisan meeting last night to tighten the eligibility of who would qualify for the $1,400 checks in President Joe Biden’s relief proposal — an example of how most amendments during the vote-a-rama will be partisan, but others will be used to try and demonstrate there could be broad support for some changes to the President’s plan.

When will this be over?

The vote-a-rama got going around 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday and is expected to go until sometime in the middle of the night. It keeps going until members get tired and leadership strikes a deal to end the whole thing.

How long does each vote take?

Usually, lawmakers agree to a process that look a lot like this.

  • Lawmaker introduces an amendment (sometimes it is just written on a piece of paper).
  • There is a minute of debate equally divided by each side.
  • 10 minutes to vote.

In practicality, each amendment takes about 15 minutes or so to get through. It moves quickly by Senate standards, which is why it is so important for members to basically stay in or close by the chamber for the entire marathon event.

That’s fast. How do they even know what they are voting on?

Honestly, this is one of the greatest challenges of budget vote-a-rama. Members have aides they are consulting throughout the evening on how they are supposed to vote on these amendments, but it’s a challenge to keep up given that members can just write their amendments on scraps of paper, bring them to the desk and have the clerk read them ahead of the vote.

What does each vote mean?

The votes themselves don’t have any effect on the budget resolution. They are nonbinding, which means they can’t change the bill and become law. These are votes of principles. And each party uses them to force the other side to take hard votes.

Each party’s strategy going into today

The party in charge typically wants to move this vote-a-rama along as quickly as possible with as few votes as possible. The minority party takes the opportunity to force votes on all kinds of measures they don’t typically have the power to put on the floor. That’s the dynamic going in. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell previewed Wednesday what he wanted to see in the vote-a-rama, saying, “We’ll be getting senators on the record about whether taxpayers should fund checks for illegal immigrants, whether Democrats should raise taxes on small businesses in the midst of this historic crisis and whether generous federal funding should pour into school districts where the unions refuse to let schools open — and this is just a small taste.”

A group of bipartisan members had a happy hour Wednesday night where they too talked a bit about how to use this vote-a-rama to demonstrate places where there could be compromise on Biden’s bill. The thinking is that even though these votes are non binding, this could be an opportunity to demonstrate to the White House that there are some places where there would be bipartisan support to make changes to Biden’s initial proposal. Expect a potential vote on raising the income thresholds for $1,400 checks.

The amendment to tighten stimulus check eligibility got wide support — passing 99 to 1, with only GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky voting against it. But it is not binding and does not mean that the eligibility requirements will be changed in the final Covid relief bill that comes out a few weeks from now; it simply expresses broad consensus to make the changes. The amendment, however, doesn’t specify who will not be eligible for the payments outside of saying “upper income taxpayers are not eligible.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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