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Is Senate's 'vote-a-rama' plan democracy in action — or a 'Tower of Babel'?

David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

This vote-a-rama is the result of Senate rules that limit debate on the overall Obamacare repeal measure to 50 hours. Offering lots of amendments allows senators to stretch out the process -- and call more attention to their views.

Each vote is supposed to take about 15 minutes, as the clerk calls out each senator's name in somber, monosyllabic tones and they answer "aye" or "nay" or stick their thumbs up or down. Even amendments that pass usually have little effect on the legislative outcome, as they often simply express the sense of the Senate and have no force of law.

Their chief value is "they force people to go on the record," said Keith Hennessey, a former Senate Budget Committee staff member who is now a lecturer at the Stanford University School of Business.

During the vote-a-rama, the 100 senators usually stay in or around the Senate chamber. If the voting goes into the night, they can rest on the couches or easy chairs (no cots!) or conduct business in adjacent rooms.

Many Republicans see the vote-a-rama as a needless legislative carnival. "It would not break my heart if we did away with them," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said of the marathon. In 2013, when Democrats controlled the Senate, Republicans were more eager for the all-night marathon.

Democrats on Tuesday viewed the proceedings as an important first step in slowing any Republican momentum for repeal. And they hope to score some political points.

"It's great messaging," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

Wednesday's amendments are expected to try to put senators on the record supporting or opposing popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The November Kaiser Family Foundation poll, for instance, showed overwhelming support for allowing people under 26 to remain on their parents' policies.

Four years ago, the vote-a-rama took 13 hours, involved voting on 101 amendments and ended at 4:56 a.m. In 2015, the marathon began in the afternoon, involved 40 amendments and lasted until 4:22 a.m. the next day.

So far this time, senators have proposed 105 amendments.

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