While Democrats change the rules, Republicans change the subject

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) apologized to her Democratic colleagues at last Tuesday morning’s caucus meeting for keeping them waiting late into Monday evening “for the plane to land,” she assured them that it would land successfully later that day.  

She was referring to a special rule to make in order a voting rights bill, a physical infrastructure measure and a budget resolution containing reconciliation instructions for committees to report their pieces of a $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” human infrastructure plan.

The House Rules Committee had reported a special rule for the three items early Monday evening after hearing testimony all day from members. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4) would be brought to the floor under a closed (no amendment) procedure with one hour of debate; the budget resolution (S.Con.Res. 14) would be self-executed upon adoption of the rule; and the Senate amendment to the House-passed bill (H.R. 3684), the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, would be subject to a motion by the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Committee to concur in the Senate amendment. 

And therein lay the hang-up for a group of 10 moderate Democrats (the “mod squad”) who did not want the infrastructure bill inextricably linked in timing or relationship to the reconciliation measure, as House progressive Democrats insisted it should be. It became clear Tuesday morning that the moderates were not assuaged by assurances that the bridges, rails and roads bill would be separately considered and passed and not be held hostage to action by either house on the reconciliation measure.

And so, a second Rules Committee meeting was scheduled for 10:30 that morning on the same three measures. That resulted in a “sense of the House” proviso that the House was committed to considering a motion to concur in the Senate amendment by Sept. 27.  The urgency was that all surface transportation programs are due to expire on Oct. 1.  

That language was still not acceptable to the moderates who thought the commitment was too squishy, with no guarantee of timely action. Therefore, a third Rules Committee meeting was scheduled for 12:30 p.m. to further tweak the action-forcing mechanism for the infrastructure bill. This time the rule provided for the automatic consideration on Sept. 27 of a motion to concur in the Senate amendment if it has not been previously disposed of. The moderates were finally mollified by such an ironclad guarantee, and the rule went on to be adopted that afternoon on a party-line vote of 220-212. 

Still, progressives are saying they will not support the infrastructure measure until after the Senate has passed the reconciliation bill. Speaker Pelosi has indicated, on the other hand, that she will not take up the reconciliation bill unless it is clear it can be passed by the Senate (the House must act first since any revenue measures must originate in the House). That means that the infrastructure bill may have a chance of passing only if there is sufficient Republican support for it to offset progressive Democratic defections.

Meantime, Republicans were divided over whether to support the bipartisan Senate compromise infrastructure alternative. How do you tell your constituents you opposed funding for repairing the crumbling roads and bridges in their district? Just as lawyers are advised to either argue the facts or law and if both fail, to pound on the table, House Republicans came up with a legislator’s equivalent of options: If you cannot defend your position with logic, defend it with powerful oratory; if you can’t defend it with powerful oratory, appeal to emotions; and, if none of those work, change the subject.

And that’s just what Republicans did during debate on the special rule. They changed the subject by urging their colleagues to defeat the previous question — the only opportunity for the minority to offer an amendment to a special rule — and vote for an amendment making in order the bill (H.R. 5071) introduced the previous day by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.). 

The Gallagher bill is designed to ensure that no Americans are left behind in Afghanistan by directing the secretary of Defense to report daily to Congress on the status of American evacuations and by prohibiting the president from withdrawing U.S. troops until all Americans are safely extracted. The previous question was predictably adopted on a party-line 220-212 vote, thereby preventing a vote on considering the Gallagher bill.

Whether such an amendment was even germane to the rule was not the point. The tactic at least symbolically raised an urgent issue that Congress was ducking and an opportunity to influence administration Afghanistan policy during its brief return to Washington (the House will not return for regular business again until Sept. 20).

The tumultuous two-day House session last week saw the Speaker finally successfully landing the plane after two touch-and-go failed attempts and Republicans finding their political footing by raising a troubling issue that Congress has so far chosen to ignore — the Afghanistan pullout.

As one member observed at the third Rules meeting, it was the longest two-day week he had ever experienced in Congress. That the members managed to work through it all with grace, patience and even humor is a manifestation of that committee’s traditional dedication to the institution.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own. 

Tags Infrastructure infrastructure vote Mike Gallagher moderates Nancy Pelosi progressives rules

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