It’s been a wild ride for the Democrats’ latest attempt at passing a big, agenda-packed bill through the reconciliation process. But after more than a year of thorny negotiations, crushing failure, resurrected hopes, seeming defeat, and a shocking comeback, the final hours before the Inflation Reduction Act—formerly known as the “Build Back Better Act”—was passed in the Senate, were more of a slog than a victory lap.
Before the final vote on the Democrats’ health care, climate, and tax bill, senators needed to endure what’s known as a “vote-a-rama,” in which the Senate votes on a series of amendments in a marathon session that ran overnight and late into Sunday. The Senate chamber is already one of the last places on earth that anyone would want to be at two o’clock in the morning on a Sunday, and these final votes were the last thing standing between senators and their multi-week August recess. The vote-a-rama began shortly before 11 p.m. on Saturday, and from the start, lawmakers approached these votes with the grim determination of a child finishing their broccoli before dessert.
Democrats were relatively unified in their purpose, with most attempting to preserve the sanctity of the bill by voting against even amendments that they agreed with. This ensured that, even when Republicans forced them to take politically painful votes, those amendments went down, often by a 50-50 vote. One such vote was to reinstate Title 42, ostensibly a public health order that was used to deny anyone entry at the border regardless of whether they were seeking asylum; a proposed vote on Title 42 sank a coronavirus relief bill earlier this year, as it was likely to garner Democratic votes, but all Democrats stuck together to oppose this amendment.
Senator Joe Manchin, formerly appreciated by Republicans for being the cause of Build Back Better’s destruction and now abhorred for being the architect of Democratic victory, tweeted on Saturday evening that he would ignore the GOP tactics and “vote to protect the integrity of the IRA regardless of the substance of their fake amendments.”
However, this strategy was not universally embraced by all Democrats. Senator Bernie Sanders, frustrated by the compromise represented by the Inflation Reduction Act, introduced multiple amendments which were, ultimately, voted down. “What today is about is whether or not Democrats are going to fight for amendments and support amendments which address some very critical needs of working families. And the amendments that I will offer will probably have the support of 70 or 80 percent of the American people,” Sanders told reporters ahead of the vote-a-rama on Saturday evening.
But for four of the amendments Sanders introduced, the only vote they received were his own. At one point, Sanders offered an amendment to reinstate the expanded child tax credit, but two of the biggest champions of the credit in the Senate—Senators Sherrod Brown and Michael Bennet—urged their colleagues not to support it. “We have to fight to make this enhanced child tax credit permanent, and that’s what I will do with people on both sides of the aisle. This does not advance that cause because we could lose the underlying bill,” Bennet explained.
When questioned about the strategy of voting against the amendment by Sanders, Brown noted that every Republican had voted against the expanded credit—first implemented in the American Rescue Plan—twice. Manchin had also opposed including the expanded credit in a reconciliation bill. “We know that this is a fragile arrangement, and we’ve got to pass it,” Brown said about the commitment among most Democrats to vote down all amendments. The amendment failed by a vote of 1 to 97.
Senator Raphael Warnock, who is up for reelection this year, also introduced an amendment to extend Medicaid coverage to states whose governors have not done so; the amendment only received support from fellow Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff, Senator Tammy Baldwin, GOP Senator Susan Collins, and Sanders.
Some votes were purely messaging, such as motions by Senator Ted Cruz to send the bill back to committee to include provisions on vaccines and parent involvement in schools. These, shockingly, were voted down. Towards the end of the exercise, several amendments were also voted en bloc—that is, one vote for six amendments, rather than considering them each separately, indicating the level of exhaustion among senators.
But the proceedings were nearly derailed by a last-minute wrench thrown into the gears by Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Senate Republicans sought Sinema’s vote on an amendment to alter the corporate minimum tax provision to allow for an exception for private equity subsidiaries; the amendment, proposed by Senator John Thune, would have been paid for by an extension of the cap on state and local tax deductions, a third rail for many senators from high-tax states. Sinema was joined by a few other Democrats in supporting the amendment—including several in tough reelection races—but the crisis was averted when a subsequent amendment replaced the SALT cap extension with a two-year loss limitation extension for some businesses.
The mood among Democrats was triumphant when—after roughly 27 hours in session and around 15 hours of vote-a-rama, not to mention over a year of heartache—the bill received its final vote. “Today, after more than a year of hard work, the Senate is making history. I am confident the Inflation Reduction Act will endure as one of the defining legislative feats of the twenty-first century,” a grinning Schumer told his colleagues in a speech ahead of the vote.
While Republicans were eager to record their vote and go, Democrats reveled in the occasion; they smiled, hugged, shook hands, and congratulated each other, giving one round of applause for the committee staff who helped write the bill, and another when it passed with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the final vote.
But the triumph came after brutal hours of votes. A vote-a-rama is a trying exercise on anyone, but particularly the numerous octogenarians and septuagenarians in the Senate. By Sunday morning, senators were exhausted as they continued to cast their mostly meaningless votes, many of them clad in the now-rumpled clothes that they had put on the day before. Senator Elizabeth Warren wore a navy hoodie under one of her signature brightly-colored blazers; Senator Tina Smith had on a quarter-zip U.S. Senate-branded fleece. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer provided dinner and breakfast for his caucus; Cruz brought in McDonald’s for Republicans. Many senators toyed around on their iPads as they waited for votes to conclude: Senator Maggie Hassan looked to be doing a crossword puzzle on hers.
The vote-a-rama is one of the practices of the Senate that, like the term “filibuster,” is far less fun than it sounds. Alas, it is all part of the process: Democrats needed to pass the Inflation Reduction Act using the procedure known as reconciliation, which allows budget-related legislation to advance with a simple majority as opposed to the 60-vote threshold required for most bills. It is one of the few tools a narrow majority has to pass their priorities without any support from the other party; Republicans used reconciliation to approve the 2017 tax cuts.
After limited debate on the reconciliation bill, the Senate proceeded to the vote-a-rama, thus called because it involves nonstop votes on as many amendments as possible without debate. The amendments must be deficit neutral or lessen the deficit, or be “germane.” The most recent vote-a-rama occurred in August of last year, during which there were 43 roll call votes.
I know what you’re thinking: This is a great story, but I really think it needs some jargon to make it sing. So, to paraphrase Olivia Newton John and Dua Lipa, let’s get technical. The reconciliation process is incredibly complicated and arduous. First, Congress must pass a budget resolution outlining the directives for reconciliation legislation. As Congress approved a budget resolution for this bill last year, we are going to hop right over that step for the sake of everyone’s sanity. Once reconciliation legislation is prepared, senators submit it to the Senate parliamentarian, an expert on Senate procedure, for review.
The parliamentarian can determine whether the legislation violates the “Byrd rule,” so named for the late Senator Robert Byrd. The Byrd rule allows senators to block provisions in the reconciliation bill that are considered “extraneous,” meaning that it does not change spending or revenue levels. A senator can raise a point of order to remove the offending portion of the bill, which can be waived by a vote of 60 senators.
The vice president, as the presiding officer of the Senate, could choose to overrule the parliamentarian, a tactic that has previously been floated by progressives and rejected by the Biden administration; the parliamentarian is a nonpartisan officer, and it could set a bad precedent to have the vice president reject her ruling without a vote. Alternatively, the Senate could overrule the recommendation with a simple majority by voting to change precedent—similar to the so-called “nuclear option” that Democrats and Republicans both used to eliminate the filibuster for judicial and Supreme Court nominees. But given how leery some Democrats have been about changing Senate precedent, this seems unlikely.
In various instances over the past year, the Senate parliamentarian has earned the ire of progressives, most notably when she found that a provision providing a $15 minimum wage in the American Rescue Plan would violate the Byrd rule, and it failed to garner sufficient votes to waive the point of order. She also advised that an immigration provision should not be included in the previous version of the Inflation Reduction Act, the Build Back Better Act.
The parliamentarian struck a blow to the Inflation Reduction Act as well, advising that a provision to cap insulin prices at $35 through private insurance violated the Byrd rule. GOP Senator Lindsey Graham raised a point of order on that provision to remove it from the bill. A vote to waive the point of order, and thus keep the cap, failed with a vote of 57 to 43—it needed support from 10 Republican senators to remain in the bill, but only received the votes of seven. A provision to cap the price of insulin through Medicare remained in place.
The failure to keep the insulin cap for privately insured individuals highlighted the very reason that Democrats needed to pass the Inflation Reduction Act through reconciliation: even a provision with bipartisan support could not overcome the dreaded 60-vote threshold. The vote-a-rama was thus, in itself, an object lesson of what was achievable in a 50-50 Senate.
With the bill passed, senators will be returning to their home states for the remainder of August, a necessary recess for those who are up for reelection. For a body that typically flees the Capitol by 2 p.m. on a Thursday, the overnight weekend votes presented a harrowing challenge for the Senate. But fear not: with this final accomplishment completed, it is unlikely that the Senate passes any other significant legislation before the midterm elections. Mercifully, we won’t have to suffer through another vote-a-rama—until the next reconciliation bill, that is.