Two houses differ on crisis response approaches
“When you’re used to having your way all the time, there’s no one who’s going to persuade you otherwise — especially when you already have the votes.”
If someone has not already said that, I just did.
That thought came to mind when I was reviewing how the two houses of Congress and two parties are responding to the crisis of gun violence in the United States. As I recounted in my previous column (June 3), the House seemed to be on a unified, partisan fast-track to pass gun control legislation without internal party discord and with minimal minority party participation or disruptions.
The “Protecting Our Kids Act” (H.R. 7910) was introduced on Tuesday, May 31, by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), marked-up and ordered reported from his committee two days later on a straight party-line vote. Unlike other major legislation, there were no preliminary hearings on the measure at which expert witnesses could be called by both parties. There was not even a section-by-section summary of the 41-page bill, containing six distinct titles. Those details would be left for inclusion in the committee report filed the following week, available just a day before floor consideration instead of the requisite 72-hours.
The Rules Committee was scheduled to meet on the measure on Tuesday, June 7, to set the ground rules for floor debate and any amendments. A closed (no-amendment) rule was anticipated. However, when some moderate Democrats complained they wanted more than just an up-or-down vote on the whole package, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) surprised them by agreeing to separate votes on each of the six titles. The Rules Committee followed the leader’s lead, and granted an otherwise closed rule, with two hours of general debate and separate votes on each of the titles.
The House adopted the rule on Wednesday, June 8, along near party-lines. That pattern held for votes on each of the titles, and on final passage. On the final passage vote of 223-204, only two Democrats voted “nay” and only five Republicans voted “aye.”
The Senate, which prides itself on being more individualistic and deliberative than the “other body,” took a different approach. Given its smaller size and broader representation of state interests, its actions can be much less predictable and manageable. This in turn can drive leaders or groups of individual senators to negotiate deals across-the-aisle in processing major legislation.
One of the great ironies is that while the Senate was once considered “the world’s greatest deliberative body” for its high levels of debate, today that image of marathon debates is a myth from a bygone era. Rather than test senators’ real intentions and abilities to hold the floor for prolonged periods, the leaders simply defer to any senator giving notice of an intention to filibuster until 60 votes can be mustered to invoke cloture and come to a final vote. In the meantime, the Senate can move on to other business.
This predictable pattern is once again front and center over gun control legislation. Given the reluctance of most Republican senators do anything on the issue, the only hope is to slowly build sufficient bipartisan support to overcome the 60-vote barrier. In the case of firearms legislation, a bipartisan group of senators led by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), has been busily negotiating over the past two weeks. The group purposely avoided calling itself a “gang,” as has been done in the past with rump groups like the “Gang of Six” on health care in 2006. For one thing, such “gangs” have a very slim record of success. More importantly, though, the term itself is too evocative of “gang-related shootings.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) gave the group until June 6 to come to agreement, but later extended it to the end of last week at the group’s urging. The group worked “virtually” through the weekend and, at midday Sunday, announced an agreed-upon final “framework,” with legislative language still to be worked-out. Most importantly, though, 20 senators have now signed on to the agreement — ten from each party, and that will be the key to overcoming any threatened filibuster.
The bipartisan group may have better success than the groups and gangs that preceded it; but, even if it succeeds in passing something in the upper body, it must still somehow come to terms with the tougher House stance. Since House-Senate conference committees went the way of the Dodo years ago, the House would be well advised in this instance to accept the Senate’s compromise. Sometimes a half-loaf is better than being left with a handful of crumbs.
Don Wolfensberger is a Congress Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a fellow at 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.