October 4, 2013

House Democratic leaders believe they have hit on a new way to potentially force House Republican leaders into allowing a vote on a “clean CR” funding the government without any defunding of Obamacare attached.

At last count, as many as two dozen House Republicans appear prepared to vote for a clean CR. With Democrats included, that means a majority of the House of Representatives would vote right now to reopen the government. But the House GOP leadership won’t allow such a vote.

Dems have hit on a way to use a “discharge petition,” which forces a House vote if a majority of Representatives signs it, to try to force the issue. Previously, it was thought this could not work, because a discharge petition takes 30 legislative days to ripen, so if this were tried with the clean CR that passed the Senate, this couldn’t bear fruit until some time in November.

But now House Democrats say they have found a previously filed bill to use as a discharge petition — one that would fund the government at sequester levels.

The bill in question is the “Government Shutdown Prevention Act,” which was introduced in March by GOP Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma. As the Congressman’s release describes it:

If Congress fails to approve a budget by the end of each fiscal year, the Government Shutdown Prevention Act would ensure that all operations remain running normally without any interruption of services by automatically triggering a continuing resolution (CR) or short-term, stop-gap spending device. The bill creates an automatic CR for any regular appropriations bill not completed before the end of the fiscal year. After the first 120 days, auto-CR funding would be reduced by one percentage point and would continue to be reduced by that margin every 90 days.

This afternoon, Dem Reps. Chris Van Hollen and George Miller will announce that they are introducing a discharge petition for the Lankford bill. They will discuss the procedural ins and outs of this move. The upshot: Once the petition is filed, they will begin rounding up signatures from both Democrats and Republicans. If they can get 218 signatures, a House vote to reopen the government will happen.

Dems say that if they get enough signatures, they’d be able to force a vote by October 14th. Given that House Republicans are now talking about letting the government shutdown battle spill into the fight over the debt limit — which expires on October 17th — it’s very possible the government could still be closed at that point.

At a minimum, this should ramp up pressure on moderate Republicans who say they want a vote on a clean CR to make good on their public statements. Presumably, House Republican leaders would put pressure on them not to sign the discharge petition, throwing House GOP intransigence into even sharper relief.

Indeed, Democrats will point out that Republicans have previously supported using clean CRs to avert shutdowns in the past, as Roll Call detailed today. This discharge petition would provide them with a vehicle to do just that, even if the House GOP leadership remains opposed to allowing any vote. It will also be interesting to see how Senate Republicans who supported the clean CR in the Upper Chamber — some of whom are reportedly growing impatient with the degree to which conservatives are dictating House GOP strategy — will react.

The irony here, of course, is that Dems are effectively hijacking a Republican bill in an effort to undercut the whole House GOP strategy.

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UPDATE: One slight clarification. If Dems can get the 218 signatures on the discharge petition, then Dems would use a procedural move to replace the Lankford bill with an amendment: A clean CR, just like the one in the Senate. So this would not enshrine the periodic one-percent reductions in spending in the Lankford measure.

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Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.