The Senate is getting ready for a very late night.
As Republicans push forward with repealing the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers are about to undertake a grueling Senate tradition: the vote-a-rama, a marathon of rapid-fire votes that is likely to stretch on for hours.
Yes, that’s really what it’s called.
For at least some people in the Capitol, like those who enjoy sleeping when it is nighttime, the experience will be unpleasant. But there is a reason for the spectacle.
For Democrats, it provides an opportunity to draw a distinction between their views on health care and how Republicans are approaching the issue. For Republicans, the completion of the exercise clears the way for them to advance to the next step in their quest to gut the health care law.
In lieu of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, here is a primer on what to expect.
Will the health act be repealed while I sleep tonight?
No. Republicans have embarked on a fragile, multistep process to repeal major parts of the health care law, one that is on pace to at least take weeks, even without any big stumbles.
But an important step on the way to repealing the law could be taken soon, perhaps early Thursday. The Senate is close to approving a budget resolution that would set in motion the process of drawing up and ultimately passing legislation to repeal the act.
What’s a budget resolution?
Don’t be fooled by the name. In this case, Congress isn’t working on the federal budget.
Republicans are taking a series of steps to allow them to repeal the health care law without facing a Democratic filibuster. Passing the budget resolution will set in motion the process that, as drawn up by Republican leaders, will culminate in the passage of legislation repealing major parts of the act.
The resolution will direct House and Senate committees to come up with that legislation. (There is some disagreement about the deadline for the committees to finish their work; Republican leaders planned for Jan. 27, but this week a group of five Republican senators suggested extending that date by five weeks, until March 3.)
The legislation that the committees come up with will be packaged in what is called a reconciliation bill, which is not subject to a filibuster. That’s critical, because Republicans have a 52-seat majority, and overcoming a filibuster requires 60 votes.
Special rules apply to budget resolutions. Senators can offer an unlimited number of amendments, and being generally crafty people, they like to take advantage of that opportunity.
The result is the spectacle known as the vote-a-rama. The Senate can consider dozens of amendments in quick succession, a task that can extend into the wee hours of the night.
None of the amendments hold the force of law: A budget resolution is essentially a blueprint for Congress, and the measure never goes to the president for a signature. But the amendments can be used to provide grist for campaign ads, giving each party the opportunity to force the opposing party’s members to take votes on politically delicate topics.
The lengthy undertaking, with minimal debate about the amendments being voted on, is not the ideal deliberative experience.
Former Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire and a past chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, once described the vote-a-rama as “the Senate’s equivalent to Chinese water torture.”
What happens tonight?
The Senate is expected to begin the vote-a-rama Wednesday evening. Not surprisingly, Senate Democrats are expected to focus on amendments relating to health care law, as part of their effort to denounce the Republican push to unwind it.
It remains to be seen how long the vote-a-rama drama will go on. Senate Democrats have already displayed their stamina once this week: They spoke on the floor in defense of the law until past midnight on Monday night.
Once the amendments have been dealt with, the Senate is expected to approve the budget resolution, a key step toward the Republicans’ goal of repealing the law.
The House will take up the budget resolution, which it plans to do once the Senate gives its approval. The House vote could take place on Friday.
But some Republicans in the House have expressed unease with voting on the measure this week, because of uncertainty about when and how the health care law would be replaced.