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The Squad hit on a special rule shakes the Democratic leadership

One of the first things a new member learns on entering Congress is to always vote with your party on procedural matters. Whether it’s on adopting standing rules and special rules, or  motions for the previous question, to recommit, or to adjourn, you’re expected to toe the line. 

That simple precept was defied two weeks ago by a handful of junior House Democrats who almost sank four party messaging bills. It’s a sign of how intra-party fissures can further undermine the Democrats’ efforts to maintain control of the House in November’s midterm elections.   

It began when the House Rules Committee, with less than an hour’s advance notice, convened an “emergency” meeting at 3:25 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 21. The purpose was to discharge four unreported bills from the House Judiciary Committee so they could be brought to the floor the following day.  

What was the sudden emergency to justify pulling these bills from a committee before being subjected to formal markup, and reporting? House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), in a press release, referred to the measures as “four critical safety bills” that “take a comprehensive approach to keep our communities safe.”  They would do so by ensuring that small and medium-sized police departments “receive the federal funding and support they deserve while maintaining accountability.” The bills would also provide new grants for mental health crisis response, investing in community violence interruption programs, and in programs to solve unsolved gun crimes. 

Had a sudden crime wave engulfed the country requiring an immediate emergency response?  No, with little more than a month before the midterm elections, the apparent emergency was political: Democrats were falling far behind Republicans in the polls as to which party could better deal with crime, as crime rates continue to soar. According to an NBC News poll of registered voters, released the previous weekend, 45 percent of respondents thought the GOP could handle the issue of crime better, compared to just 22 percent who thought Democrats could. 

Moreover, Republicans were already exploiting the issue nationally. According to Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne (Sept. 29), referring to a Post report earlier in the week, during the first three weeks of September, “GOP candidates and allied groups, aired about 53,000 commercials on crime … up from 29,000 crime ads in August.” 

After hearing testimony from Judiciary Committee members Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas.), and  Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.), the Rules Committee, on a 7-4 vote, reported a single special rule (H. Res. 1377), making in order consideration of all four bills with one-hour of general debate each and no amendments (closed rules). 

The next day, the House took up the special rule promptly at 9 a.m..  Majority Whip James Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) “Whipline,”  issued late Wednesday, estimated the first votes on Thursday would occur between 9:45 and 10:30, and the last votes between 1 and 2 p.m., including debate and votes on the special rule and all four bills. It looked to be smooth sailing on a getaway day (no legislative business was scheduled for Friday).  

That’s when a monkey wrench was thrown into the procedural machinery by the Squad — a small group of six liberal Democrats. The group began with four women first elected in 2018, headed-up by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.),  The other original Squad members were: Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.). They were joined  later by two members elected in 2020: Rep. Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.) and Rep. Cori Bush (Mo.). 

While no Squad members participated in the one-hour debate on the special rule, the leadership was apparently aware of their continuing concerns about insufficient accountability in the policing bill and their potential threat to defeat the rule. That triggered a House recess being called by the chair at 9:54 a.m., after debate on the rule concluded, and set in motion the majority whip operation to count noses, twist arms, and scour the bushes for missing members, some of whom had already left town for the weekend. 

When the House reconvened at 12:29 p.m. after a two and one-half hour recess, it voted to adopt the special rule, 216 to 215, with one Squad member, Pressley, voting “present,” and one, Omar, voting for the rule. Four Squad members voted against the rule: Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Bush, and Bowman. Only 375 members were still around to vote in person while another 56 members voted by proxy. 

By the end of the day, when the House passed the final bill (all four passed handily), 117 members voted by proxy and only 311 members were still in the Capitol to vote in person. The House then adjourned at 6:14 p.m. — a far cry from the majority whip’s original sunny prediction of an early-afternoon departure. 

Don Wolfensberger is a Congress scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 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 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Crime critical safety bills Jamaal Bowman James Clyburn Midterm elections Steny Hoyer the squad

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