- Washington Post
Neutralizing Hardliners, House Republicans Using Special Process to Pass Bills
17:05 JST, February 2, 2024
Late Wednesday the House overwhelmingly approved a nearly $80 billion tax package that would renew breaks for big corporations and expand the child tax credit for millions of families, using the same process used for naming post offices.
Lawmakers had no chance to offer amendments on the major bipartisan legislation. Debate was brief. And, by using the “suspension calendar” normally reserved for noncontroversial matters, the legislation got quickly sent to the Senate.
Republican leaders were successful in advancing a piece of priority legislation, hitting a final tally of 357-70 – well above the increased threshold of a two-thirds majority needed to pass legislation using this fast-track process.
And House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) once again found a way around the blockade from his far-right faction that regularly tries to sabotage the normal flow of legislation if it’s deemed insufficiently pure for conservatives.
It’s the fifth time in four months House GOP leaders have used this fast-track process for what are considered important legislative matters, but are usually considered under a formal rule that the majority party is tasked with passing. Faced with a renegade faction that votes against those rules, Republicans instead have turned to the suspension calendar to pass these critical bills.
But that two-thirds requirement effectively means Johnson and Republicans give away their negotiating leverage because Democrats know that their votes are decisive in the very narrowly divided House.
“So we’re giving up a big part of the power of being the majority,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chair of the House Rules Committee, said in a Tuesday interview.
Republicans first used this fast track to keep government agencies fully operational on Sept. 30 last year, prompting a small group of far-right Republicans to oust Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker a few days later.
This faction has spared Johnson the same indignity after he’s used this process to get around their demands. But each time GOP leaders have gone down this path, the already-bad look got worse when the final vote tally came down.
The minority party effectively became the majority party, providing the bulk of the overall votes. In mid-December, when the House voted on the final version of the national defense policy bill, Democrats provided 163 votes and Republicans 147 for the bill.
On Jan. 18, a day before another potential government shutdown, Republicans mustered just 107 votes for the stopgap bill that funded agencies into March. Democrats provided 207 votes.
On Wednesday that scenario played out again as 188 Democrats and 169 Republicans supported the tax package, prompting one rank-and-file Democrat to mock the GOP and declare that Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) is effectively the House speaker.
“Every major piece of legislation this Congress – today, expanding the Child Tax Credit – has passed with more Democratic votes than GOP votes,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) posted on social media after the tax vote.
In negotiating the package, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jason T. Smith (R-Mo.) sought to renew tax breaks for corporations on their research and development costs as well as other business expenses from the 2017 GOP tax cuts. With Democrats controlling the Senate, Smith needed to win over Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who in turn demanded the expansion of the child tax credit, a major liberal priority.
The House Ways and Means Committee approved the package on a 40-3 vote, the type of traditional win-win compromise that in a previous era of Congress would have swept quickly into law with little opposition.
That normally would have involved Cole’s committee formulating rules of debate, and, with nine members of the majority and just four in the minority, that panel is stacked so that the speakers can always have their way.
The Rules Committee determines how much debate time there is and which lawmakers can offer which amendments. The majority, by tradition, is responsible for approving the rule – in committee and on the House floor – allowing for debate and consideration of the legislation. The minority almost never votes for the majority’s rules.
But the House’s far-right contingent decided last year to blow up the regular order of legislative business, vowing to vote against the rules if they did not support the underlying bill. With a razor-thin majority, McCarthy and Johnson have been embarrassed collectively five times in watching a procedural rule vote fail, stopping the legislation in its tracks. Numerous other times the leaders pulled a rules vote from the floor, knowing it would fail.
In the previous 20 years, not one rule vote failed.
Democrats are happy to be able to shape legislation in their direction, when Johnson resorts to the fast-track process to get around his right flank, but frustrated by the historically poor output from the House since Republicans took control last year.
“They need Democrats to be able to pass them, so that’s a good thing. The bad thing? There’s no amendments in order, very little debate,” Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, said Wednesday.
For the foreseeable future the House GOP is only capable of passing a rule on legislation that is so conservative that the most conservative members will vote for it – in which case it has no chance of even being considered in the Senate, let alone getting sent to President Biden for his signature.
McGovern recently discovered an amazing statistic: The last time Republicans passed a rule on a bill that eventually became law was May 31 – meaning it’s been eight full months without regular order in the House leading to something becoming law.
And, actually, that vote saw the incredibly rare move of more than 20 Democrats stepping across the aisle to support the rule and help it pass, because Biden wanted their support for the debt-and-budget deal that he had negotiated with McCarthy.
“We’re just not getting anything done,” McGovern lamented.
The staunch conservatives want to have the right to essentially redraw legislation to their liking in secret, despite the committee’s previous work.
They did this last summer when the House Armed Services Committee passed the defense bill on a 58-1 vote, only to have a group of far-right lawmakers rework the bill in secret and stuff it with social conservative riders.
“The other members, if they want to have a say, ought to have a say. They’re members of Congress,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said before Wednesday’s vote. “And to move bills, especially something this massive, by suspending the rules – we usually do that for post offices and something that’s inconsequential that we know everybody’s just going to support, not for major pieces of legislation.”
Indeed, the vote before the tax bill came on the suspension calendar was naming a Texas post office after three fallen soldiers; 214 Republicans and 206 Democrats voted yes.
Two Republicans, Reps. Chip Roy (Tex.) and Matt Rosendale (Mont.), also members of the far-right Freedom Caucus, voted present as a way to protest the speaker’s machinations.
Cole believes that the best way to get the most conservative outcome would be to approve the rules vote, which would then allow for amendments and only require a simple majority vote to approve legislation.
If Republicans had just agreed to pass a rule Wednesday to consider the tax bill, they would have needed less than 50 Democrats to pass the legislation, making their negotiating position better than using the suspension calendar and needing close to 120 Democrats for passage.
“We’re weakening our ability to get things done by not playing by regular order and supporting the rule,” Cole said.
Why wouldn’t the far-right contingent just offer an olive branch and approve the rules in exchange for getting votes on their preferred amendments?
They don’t trust GOP leaders, not even Johnson.
“This town is full of promises to be paid later,” Donalds said. “I think there are a lot of members who are done with that.”
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