Perhaps in recognition of Lent, Senate Republicans responded to the passage of health care reform this week by saying 147 Hail Marys. That is, they offered up 147 amendments designed to kill the reconciliation bill—or, at least, to cast it back into the fiery legislative bowels from whence it came.
Vote-a-rama—the period before a bill’s passage in which senators can offer up an unlimited number of amendments—serves two purposes. One is to eat up time. The two parties had 20 hours starting Wednesday to debate the amendments, and Republicans wanted to milk every last minute. The other purpose is to force the party in power to cast embarrassing votes. This health care reform bill already passed the House, so Senate Democrats were determined to vote down any amendment that would require another House vote. (It turns out that, for boring parliamentary reasons, the House has to vote again, anyway.) Republicans therefore wanted to make the “poison pill” amendments as hard to vote against as possible. If you can’t beat them, the thinking goes, humiliate them.
Hence the series of Republican amendments that, on the one hand, encapsulated the GOP opposition—David Vitter of Louisiana proposed a full repeal, for instance—but, on the other hand, were more Democratic than the Democrats. Vitter also proposed increasing women’s access to breast-cancer screenings. Democrats voted it down. Utah’s Orrin Hatch offered an amendment that would “protect America’s wounded warriors.” The heartless Democrats voted against it. Other amendments simply forced the Democrats to take ridiculous stances. When Tom Coburn of Oklahoma proposed prohibiting coverage of Viagra for child molesters—an issue sure to pop up in future campaign ads—Democrats voted against it. Republicans did show some restraint, however, by declining to offer an amendment banning kitten executions.
The question is: Do these amendments actually do any damage? For the most part, no. There’s a long history of forcing opposing parties to take embarrassing votes in order to pass important legislation, and some of them occasionally make it into 30-second attack ads. But it’s usually the main bill, rather than the gimmicky stuff around the edges, that is remembered. “This health care bill is like an aircraft carrier,” says Randy Strahan, a political science professor at Emory University. “These kinds of amendments are not going to stop it.” Plus, Democrats have given themselves procedural cover by voting to “table” the amendments, which is technically different from voting against them.
Democrats can also avoid paying the price for awkward votes by introducing separate legislation to make their stances clear. For example, Republicans floated the idea of adding a public option amendment in order to force Democrats to vote against it. After some Democrats proposed a separate bill supporting a public option, Republicans dropped the idea.
Sometimes, “poison pill” amendments do succeed at derailing legislation—but only when they actually make it into the bill. Jeff Sessions of Alabama amended a 2009 hate crimes bill to include the death penalty in the case of hate crimes, effectively killing the bill. In 2007, Jim DeMint of South Carolina derailed an immigration bill by voting in favor of a guest-worker program he had previously opposed. “If it hurts the bill, I’m for it,” DeMint told the Washington Post. Republicans in 2009 effectively killed a D.C. voting rights bill by introducing an amendment that would repeal many of the city’s gun control laws.
They can also haunt senators in ways those senators don’t expect. When John Kerry said he voted for a $87 billion package to fund troops in Iraq before he voted against it, he didn’t explain the context. The first vote was for a bill that would have chipped away at the Bush tax cuts. The second vote was for the Iraq funding alone. In other words, the reason he voted for it in the first place was, apparently, a poison pill.
Occasionally, poison pills backfire. In 1964, conservative Southern politicians introduced an amendment to the Civil Rights Act that would ban sex-based discrimination in the workplace. The purpose was to kill the bill. Instead, it passed, gender bias and all. The modern-day equivalent would be Republicans adding an amendment creating a single-payer, government-run health care system—only to have Democrats vote for it.