The Senate voted 51 to 50 to begin debate on the House-passed Build Back Better Act reconciliation bill (HR 5376). Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote. After the vote, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., offered the Senate version of the reconciliation bill – a modified Inflation Reduction Act – to HR 5376 in the form of a complete substitute amendment. Senators now have 20 hours from the vote to debate both the House and Senate versions of the reconciliation bills and any amendments offered to them.

VOTE-A-RAMA IN THEORY

Senators may continue to offer amendments to HR 5376 after all debate time on it has expired. During this vote-a-rama period, the Senate votes whenever a senator offers an amendment (or makes a motion or appeals the chair’s ruling). Consequently, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., can’t prevent senators from getting votes on their amendments by filling the amendment tree.

Filling the tree only works in situations when the majority leader can offer several amendments back-to-back until there are no available branches left on the tree for other senators. But the majority leader can’t use the maneuver during vote-a-rama because the Senate votes on each amendment he offers as soon as he offers it. And when the Senate votes to dispose of an amendment during vote-a-rama, any senator may offer another amendment.

VOTE-A-RAMA IN PRACTICE

Vote-a-rama in practice differs from vote-a-rama in theory. This is because the Senate has developed other strategies to make the vote-a-rama process orderly than filling the amendment tree.

AMENDMENT TRANCHES

The Senate almost always use unanimous consent agreements to determine which amendments senators offer and the order in which they offer them during vote-a-rama. Senators also usually allow for a limited amount of time (typically two minutes equally divided) for debate before each vote in the unanimous consent agreement. Senators pick the first tranche of amendments specified in these unanimous consent agreements in negotiations before vote-a-rama begins. They then negotiate subsequent tranches during recorded votes and lock in their agreement by unanimous consent.

STACKING THE DECK

The reconciliation bill’s floor managers can also make it less likely that senators will insist on offering their amendments during vote-a-rama by calling up numerous amendments to the reconciliation bill before vote-a-rama begins. Absent unanimous consent, the Senate must dispose of every pending amendment once vote-a-rama begins before senators can offer their amendments to the reconciliation bill – a process that could take hours.

THE BYRD RULE

The rules governing the reconciliation process also place limits on what amendments senators can offer to the budget resolution during vote-a-rama. Any senator may raise a point of order against an amendment on the basis that it violates the Budget Act – especially the Byrd Rule. If the presiding officer sustains the point of order, the amendment falls without a vote. In some cases, senators may move to waive the point of order before the presiding officer rules on it. Many of the Budget Act’s waiver motions – like the Byrd Rule’s waiver motion – require a supermajority vote to succeed.