House GOP changes rules to thwart Dems

Greg Nash

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is changing the way the House considers spending measures to try to prevent Democrats from offering surprise amendments that have recently put the GOP on defense.

House Republican leaders have been blindsided multiple times by Democrats offering politically volatile amendments to appropriations bills. Starting as soon as next month, Ryan is expected to make it harder for the minority party to attempt to embarrass the majority.

Ryan laid out plans at a House GOP conference meeting Tuesday morning to require that members submit their amendments ahead of time so that they are printed in the Congressional Record, according to leadership aides.

The change will not yet be in effect this week for a bill to fund the Energy Department and water infrastructure projects. But lawmakers would have to abide by the requirement, which before now was optional, starting with appropriations bills considered after the Memorial Day recess.

By requiring amendments to be made public in advance, GOP leaders would be able to anticipate difficult votes and figure out a strategy before the last minute. Specifics of the revamped process, such as the deadline for members to file their amendments, have yet to be determined by leadership. 

Upon winning majority control five years ago, House Republicans, led by then-Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), brought back the use of a freewheeling process known as an “open rule” to consider annual appropriations bills. 

Under that procedure, members of either party can offer unlimited amendments without having to give advance notice to their colleagues or the public. On most other bills, the majority party’s leaders control which amendments get floor time.

Top Republicans have touted the use of open rules as a return to “regular order” and a way to empower individual members. But it has backfired spectacularly on House Republicans twice in the last year.

The most recent example occurred last week, when Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) offered an amendment to a Veterans Affairs spending bill that would enforce an executive order President Obama issued two years ago prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The amendment was set to pass with 217 votes in favor. But members of House GOP leadership could be seen on the floor persuading Republicans to change their votes to sink Maloney’s measure. They held the vote open for seven minutes until the amendment failed, on a 212-213 vote.

GOP leaders said passage of the underlying spending bill would have been jeopardized with Maloney’s amendment attached. The night before, the House had passed the annual defense authorization legislation with a provision that effectively exempts religious organizations from Obama’s executive order.

Maloney’s office said Tuesday he will offer his amendment this week on an Energy Department spending bill. But Republicans will be more prepared this time, and will likely avoid chaos like last week’s on the House floor.

A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) blasted Ryan’s proposed rules change.

“This is the second time in less than a week that Speaker Ryan has abandoned regular order in the name of furthering LGBT discrimination in this country. Obviously, we are deeply disappointed that the House Republican leadership has apparently decided that discriminating against LGBT Americans is a top legislative priority,” Drew Hammill said in a statement.

House Republicans were similarly caught off-guard last year when Democrats offered amendments restricting the display of the Confederate flag in the aftermath of a racially motivated shooting in Charleston, S.C.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) had offered an amendment limiting the display of the flag in certain national cemeteries to a spending bill for the Interior Department. It passed easily by voice vote during late-night floor proceedings with no debate in opposition.

But some Republicans, primarily from Southern states, demanded the amendment be stripped from the legislation after learning of its passage the next day. Rather than staging a vote showing their members voting in favor of the Confederate symbol on the same day the South Carolina House voted to remove the battle flag from the state Capitol grounds, House GOP leaders decided to scrap the entire spending bill.

GOP leaders further abandoned consideration of remaining appropriations bills after Democrats threatened to keep offering amendments regarding Confederate imagery.

Last week, Huffman indicated he would offer another Confederate flag-related amendment. Republicans were consequently more prepared to keep Huffman’s proposal from again passing quietly by voice vote.

Ryan’s new requirement will add more predictability to the appropriations process in the House. GOP leaders will, for instance, be able to more easily schedule votes if they know how many amendments to expect.

It will also allow the public to know ahead of time what proposals lawmakers plan to offer to appropriations bills. Details of amendments to such measures often haven’t been made available until the House is in the middle of debating them.

At the same time, the appearance of watering down the open process could undermine Ryan’s pledge to allow the House to “work its will,” even at the risk of tough votes.

Some lawmakers complained last week that they didn’t receive enough information about what they were voting on, resulting in limited ability for their staffs to prepare them for the LGBT amendment.

“We didn’t know what was happening until we were walking to the floor,” one GOP lawmaker told The Hill.

Scott Wong contributed. Last updated at 7:17 p.m.

Tags Boehner John Boehner Paul Ryan
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