Members of Congress should force leadership to hold a COVID-19 relief bill vote
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In wake of the release of a bipartisan $908 billion framework for a COVID-19 relief bill, momentum is building for legislative action before the 116th Congress adjourns. But Washington has been debating a relief bill since the summer and leaders — on both sides — have thus far refused to put a meaningful bipartisan compromise on the floor for a vote.

With COVID-19 spreading exponentially and troubling new data suggesting the labor market and the economy could be backsliding, it may time for rank-and-file members to force the hand of congressional leadership and force a vote on a bill the public desperately wants and needs.

House and Senate members have real leverage if they are willing to use it in the form of a somewhat obscure — but powerful — procedural tool.


By law, the Congress cannot conclude its business in a given session until it passes a “motion to adjourn sine die” — a Latin phrase meaning “without a day [to reassemble].” According to Article 1, section 5 of the Constitution, this motion requires the consent of both the House and the Senate. In other words, Congress cannot adjourn without the agreement of both the House and Senate.

Motions of this sort require only a simple majority of members in each chamber to pass. They are non-debatable, which means that they cannot be filibustered. And they enjoy priority over nearly every other kind of motion, which means that the vote could occur soon after the motion is introduced. Given the narrow majorities in both chambers, just a few members have the power to keep Congress open no matter what leadership wants.

Take the Senate for example, where Republicans currently have a narrow 52-48 majority. If just three Republican senators joined with the minority Democrats to block adjournment, this session of Congress would need to stay open.

Of course, House and Senate leadership would not appreciate this act of subversion from their members of course. But done right, such a move need not be designed or seen as a plot to embarrass Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Trump takes two punches from GOP MORE (R-Ky.) or House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Justice Department says Trump's tax returns should be released | Democrats fall short of votes for extending eviction ban House adjourns for recess without passing bill to extend federal eviction ban Photos of the Week: Olympic sabre semi-finals, COVID-19 vigil and a loris MORE (D-Calif.). Members could go on the record now with their intent to vote against adjournment until they are able to vote on a bipartisan COVID-19 relief bill, giving leadership the time to try to work out a good faith compromise.

Keeping Congress open beyond its scheduled adjournment date is by no means unusual. In the 25 Congresses stretching back 50 years, Congress has not left town for good until the week before Christmas on four occasions, and it stayed in session during the week after Christmas five other times. But in most cases, it has been leadership deciding to keep Congress open by refusing to put an adjournment motion on the floor.


In this case, America may need some bold rank-and-file members willing to take the lead and take some heat from their own party leadership. Staying in session is no guarantee that a COVID-19 bill will be agreed on, brought to the floor, or passed. But members can let their constituents know that they are ready, willing and able to stay through the Christmas holiday to ensure that those Americans who are struggling the most will have their needs addressed. Conversely, if Congress does go home without acting, it will merely feed the frustration and desperation so many Americans feel over the failure of Congress to pass a relief bill whose need becomes more obvious by the day.

It's time for congressional leaders to put a bipartisan COVID-19 relief bill on the floor. And if they won’t, it’s time for other members to be bold and refuse to leave town until they get a vote.

Tom Davis is a co-founder of No Labels, a national organization working to revive bipartisanship. He served in Congress from 1995-2008. Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979-2005.