Dems decry midnight rule change

House Democrats are fuming about a rule change adopted by Republicans just before the government shut down on Oct. 1, arguing it shows GOP leaders closed agencies intentionally.

Under long-standing House rules, any member of the chamber can bring a measure to the floor. But Republicans altered the rule governing legislation to fund the government so that only House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) holds the power to make such a motion.

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The practical effect of that change became apparent on Saturday, when Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, tried to bring the Senate-passed continuing resolution (CR) to the floor, only to be shot down.

"That motion may be offered only by the majority leader or his designee," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who was presiding over the chamber at the time.

The response didn't sit well with Van Hollen.

"Why are the rules rigged to keep the government shut down?" he asked.

The disagreement over how to reopen the government hinges on the scope of the chambers' spending proposals, with Democrats demanding the Senate's "clean" bill and most Republicans insisting any CR must make changes to ObamaCare.

Under the standing rules of the House, any member can make a "privileged" motion "to dispose of any amendment" when a "stage of disagreement" between the House and Senate "has been reached on a bill or resolution." That privilege, though rarely used, offers a roundabout way for the minority party to force votes on the floor.

But in the last hour of Sept. 30, Republicans on the House Rules Committee altered the rule governing the CR debate so that such a motion "may be offered only by the Majority Leader or his designee."

Explaining the change, Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) made no attempt to disguise the Republicans' motivations. The alteration was made, he said, to prevent Democrats from bringing the Senate's "clean" CR to the floor, just as Republicans were calling for a conference on the competing bills.

"There are rules related to privileged motions that could take place almost effective immediately, and we're trying to go to conference," Sessions said.

"I understand you are, but that doesn't tell me why you changed the regular order so that only Mr. Cantor can do that under the rule," Rep. Louise Slaughter (N.Y.), senior Democrat on the panel, responded.

"There could be a motion as early as tonight [and] a conference would be avoided," Sessions said. "And we want a conference. We want to have an actual discussion."

"Well, I think you've taken that away," Slaughter said of the motion option.

"That's what I'm saying, we took that away," Sessions said.

"Oh mercy, it just gets deeper and deeper," Slaughter said.

The rule passed out of the committee with every Republican voting for it and every Democrat voting against.

Saturday's exchange between Van Hollen and Chaffetz followed a similar arc, with Democrats accusing the GOP of keeping the government closed and Republicans simply invoking their rule change as a way to keep the Senate CR off the House floor.

"The Rules Committee ... changes the standing rules of the House to take away the right of any member to move to vote to open the government and gave that right exclusively to the Republican leader. Is that right?" Van Hollen asked.

"The House adopted that resolution," Chaffetz said.