blogThe Senate voted on four amendments to the immigration reform bill today, starting the ball rolling on what is likely to be a series of amendment votes over the next few days. The Senate rejected two votes requiring more enforcement at the border as a condition of implementing or completing a legalization program: Vitter 1228, which failed 36-58, and Thune 1197, which failed 39-54. Two other amendments were less divisive: Tester 1198, adding tribal governments to the Border Task Force, which passed 94-0 and Landrieu 1222, an adoption measure,  which passed on a voice vote. In each case, in order to be adopted, a sixty vote threshold was required, rather than a simple majority, which has become the norm in the Senate. Needless to say, the variety of votes and rules can be confusing, leading to the need for some background on the amendment process.

What are the steps an amendment has to go through?

First, a senator has to file an amendment to a bill that is being considered. After the amendment is filed, a senator can offer amendments to any part of the bill, and they can be offered in any order. This differs from the Senate Judiciary Committee’s markup of S. 744 because committee members considered amendments in order by title, but there is no order or requirement that the amendments directly relate to the bill on the Senate floor. While an amendment is pending in the Senate, other senators can add second-degree amendments to it. Along with amendments that make changes to other amendments, senators can propose an amendment in the nature of a substitute. This takes out the entire text of the bill or a provision and replaces it with different text. And before the Senate votes on an amendment, it needs to be called up for consideration.

What about voting on amendments?

According to Senate procedures, “The Senate may dispose of each amendment either by voting on it directly or by voting to table it. The motion to table cannot be debated; and, if the Senate agrees to it, the effect is the same as a vote to defeat the amendment.”   In other words, the Senate can agree to end debate on an amendment, but if there is no agreement, the majority can table the amendment with only  a majority vote. If the Senate agrees to a motion to table an amendment, then it can be brought up again; however, defeating a motion to table an amendment means debate on it resumes. Unless it is under cloture—which requires 60 votes—the Senate cannot vote on an amendment if there are senators who want to continue debating the measure, so senators can use a motion to table an amendment to stop debate because a motion to table is not debatable. The rules change when a unanimous consent agreement is reached about debating an amendment, that automatically divides and limits the time that can be spent on it. Outside of roll call votes that require 51 or 60 votes, the Senate can also hold voice votes on amendments. Additionally, the Senate does not have to vote on each amendment one at a time. When the Senate voted on four amendments today, for example, the votes on each one came in a row after senators had discussed the changes for several days.

What is the difference in a 60-vote and 50-vote threshold for amendments?

The default in the Senate is to act on all amendments and motions to table amendments by a majority vote of all the senators present and voting. But it has become more routine to require amendments to have 60 votes in order to be adopted. Having 60 votes, or three-fifths, protects an amendment from certain points of order in the Senate. Most importantly for those who want to proceed on an issue, a 60-vote threshold prevents a filibuster. When Reid tried last week to bring up five amendments and require 60 votes for them to be approved, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) objected, calling it a “very provocative act” to obstruct the process. But Reid replied that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) started the rule that everything in the Senate had to reach 60 votes. “How many times have we heard the Republican Leader say 60 votes is how things should get done in the Senate,” Reid said.

Photo Courtesy of C-Span.