GOP finds new tools to tear at Dem divisions

GOP finds new tools to tear at Dem divisions
© Stefani Reynolds

House GOP leaders are looking to capitalize on tensions between centrist and liberal Democrats following a pair of high-profile procedural victories on the chamber floor that have highlighted divisions in the Democratic Party.

Republicans intend to weaponize an obscure parliamentary measure, known as a motion to recommit (MTR), as an evolving strategy to give moderate Democrats a choice between crossing the aisle or risking GOP attack ads in their swing districts heading into the 2020 elections.

Republicans, when they held the House majority between 2011 and 2019, treated the Democrats’ MTRs as mere messaging gambits — partisan measures to oppose regardless of their substance. And GOP leaders were near-unfailing in uniting their conference against those proposals over those years: Not one Democratic motion to recommit passed during that stretch.

Now in the minority themselves, Republican leaders have adopted a different position, arguing that MTRs should carry the same weight as any other piece of legislation. And they’re thrilled that a number of Democrats, in the early weeks of the new Congress, have embraced the same belief.

“What we’ve established is that on their side, the motion to recommit is now about policy, it’s no longer procedural, because they’ve been voting with us on a number of the MTRs we’ve brought forward,” House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseManchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Sunday shows - Trump's Epstein conspiracy theory retweet grabs spotlight Sanders: Trump doesn't 'want to see somebody get shot' but 'creates the climate for it' MORE (R-La.) told The Hill.

“Once you’ve voted for an MTR, you’ve established that it’s definitely about policy and not procedural,” he continued. “So after that, every MTR you vote against is going to be hard to explain, if you agree or your district supports the policy.” 

In their latest win, Republicans last week picked off 26 Democrats on a motion to recommit that amended a landmark gun control bill to include language requiring that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) be alerted if an immigrant without legal status tries to purchase a firearm.

The gun bill was still approved, but the amendment infuriated liberal Democrats, who were forced to go on record supporting an immigration enforcement provision they detest, while proving an embarrassment to Democratic leaders who failed to keep their troops in line.

“It absolutely hurts the party. And I do think that for anyone who anticipates voting ‘no,’ or defecting on the MTR, you know, that’s why we whip. And that’s why we have to go into that chamber knowing exactly what we’re doing and not figuring it out while we’re on the floor,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezPoll: Voters split on whether it's acceptable for Israel to deny Omar, Tlaib visas NJ college censures trustee over posts targeting 'the squad' 'The Simpsons' pokes fun at Trump's feud with 'the squad' MORE (D-N.Y.). “It’s an extension of [President] Trump’s tactics into the House, and we cannot legitimize it, and we cannot allow for it.”

Another Democratic lawmaker voiced a separate frustration following the gun vote: many of the defectors on the ICE amendment — most of whom were freshmen — were given plum committee assignments at the start of the year, only to break with the party on one of the first major pieces of legislation to hit the floor.

“I can’t get on the committees and I take the hard votes,” the lawmaker said.

In the aftermath, Democratic leaders are attempting to crack the whip, with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCutting tariffs is better than cutting payroll taxes to boost the economy Pelosi speaks with Israeli president after Trump controversy In debate over internet speech law, pay attention to whose voices are ignored MORE (D-Calif.) warning would-be defectors that Democratic resources are best reserved for those who stick with the party, according to several reports.

“I think you should just vote against all motions to recommit. It’s a procedural vote, it’s a ‘gotcha’ on the part of the opposition,” Pelosi told reporters last week. “Let’s make life easy: just vote against them.”

The blowup has highlighted both the divisions in the House Democratic Caucus, which is no longer as liberal as it was just a year ago, and the growing pains that have accompanied the party’s newly won majority, which they secured by picking off Republicans in conservative-leaning districts — seats the GOP is hoping to reclaim in 2020.

Republicans say all of this is evidence that their tactics are working. And they hope the frictions could weaken vulnerable Democrats enough to flip the House next year.

“It’s been the strategy from day one, because we knew their majority-makers cannot sustain taking the radical positions of their party,” one GOP leadership aide told The Hill.

The GOP is seeking to shower attention on the Democratic divisions, taking to cable news and social media to accuse Democratic leaders of catering to the far left in defiance of both the more moderate members and the voters they represent.

“Many of their members were from districts that are much more conservative than Pelosi’s agenda, and that’s where they’re going to have a conflict — they’re going to have to pick a side,” Scalise said.

“They’re either going to have to support and vote with their district, or they’ll have to support and vote with Pelosi’s agenda. But they can’t do both.”

Passage of the ICE provision came just weeks after Republicans successfully pushed through another MTR, which denounced anti-Semitism. The back-to-back GOP victories have led top Democrats to weigh whether to change House rules to require more advance notice of the substance of MTRs, which are frequently introduced just minutes before they get a vote.

“If it is going to be treated — I don’t think it should be — but if members decide they are going to treat it as a substantive amendment, you’ve got to have more than five minutes to determine what the impact might be,” said Rep. Dan KildeeDaniel (Dan) Timothy KildeeThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump's new target: Elijah Cummings Pelosi backers feel vindicated after tumultuous stretch Harris unveils plan to revamp infrastructure, ensure access to clean water MORE (D-Mich.), a chief deputy whip.

Kildee said the Democrats’ MTRs of the past were introduced “with the full understanding” that Republicans would kill them — “even if it said ‘this is an MTR for motherhood and apple pie.’ ”

“It’s a tactic that allows the minority to express themselves just before a bill is taken to the floor,” he said, “and it has been treated most recently as something other than that.”

One GOP lawmaker noted that even if Democrats move forward with changes to the MTR, Republicans will continue to pursue other avenues to put Democrats on the record, including tools like discharge petitions — which they are currently pursuing with an anti-abortion bill — and requests for unanimous consent.

“We’ll try discharge petitions and even if they don’t succeed we’ll highlight those who declined to sign the discharge petition,” the lawmaker said. “Because they’re saying it’s OK.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyOmar says US should reconsider aid to Israel I'm not a Nazi, I'm just a dude: What it's like to be the other Steve King Trump finds consistent foil in 'Squad' MORE (R-Calif.) is also sounding the alarm that changing the MTR process would constitute an abuse of power, saying it’s the Democrats’ attempt to silence the minority.

“Never once did I deny the minority to offer it at the last minute,” he told reporters last week. “I saw the exact same process. We have the same process now and they want to change it 60 days in?”

Democrats have rejected that argument outright, noting that requiring advance notice would do nothing to prevent Republicans from offering their amendments on the floor.

“You know who took away the power of Republicans? The voters in 2018,” said Kildee. “We’re in the majority, we’ve got to act like it.”