By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 19, 2007
House Republicans, fighting to remain relevant in a chamber ruled by Democrats, have increasingly seized on a parliamentary technique to alter or delay nearly a dozen pieces of legislation pushed by the majority this year.
And an election-year promise by Democrats to pay for any new programs they created has made it easier for Republicans to trip them up.
Tensions over the maneuvers reached a boil this week. Republicans used procedural tactics to stall floor debate for four hours Wednesday, and they are threatening to tie up future legislative action.
The stalling tactics prompted Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) to leave the floor and meet privately in his office with Republican Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and his whip, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). The men emerged with an uneasy detente that they said would last at least until Congress breaks for the Memorial Day recess, but the matter is far from settled.
Since January, GOP leaders have relied on a maneuver known as the "motion to recommit" to stymie Democrats and score political points for Republicans still adjusting to life in the minority.
The motion to recommit allows the minority a chance to amend a bill on the floor or send it back to committee, effectively killing it. In a legislative body in which the party in power controls nearly everything, it is one of the few tools the minority has to effect change.
In the 12 years of Republican control that ended in January, Democrats passed 11 motions to recommit. Republicans have racked up the same number in just five months of this Congress.
Democrats say any comparison is unfair because when Republicans controlled Congress, they directed their members to vote against all Democratic motions to recommit.
Now in the majority and mindful of staying there, Democrats have given no such instruction to their members, allowing them to break with the party if they choose. Many freshmen Democrats from GOP-leaning districts find themselves voting with Republicans as a matter of survival -- a reality Republicans have seized upon.
"Sometimes we offer motions to recommit to improve legislation -- sometimes it's to force Democrats in marginal districts to make tough choices," Boehner said. "Every time the Republicans win, it boosts morale. We're able to show unity, which is good for the overall team. Members feel good about winning on the House floor. And when you're in the minority, it doesn't happen that often."
Democrats dismiss the Republican maneuvers as largely symbolic and so arcane as to be irrelevant to the public.
"From a public policy standpoint, it's not very significant," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), regarded as an expert in parliamentary combat. "It's almost a Capture the Flag game. The number of people in America who say, 'Oh my gosh, the Republicans won another motion to recommit' is very small."
But Republicans argue they have been able to make significant changes. They point to Thursday, when they successfully used a motion to recommit to restore millions of dollars for missile defense to a defense bill. It remains to be seen if that money will survive a conference committee.
"It's kind of a 'Rashomon' world," said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, referring to the movie in which participants in an event all recount it differently. "The two parties see it in very different terms."
The Democrats' own rules have made it easier for Republicans to offer motions to recommit. In January, the party promised to observe "pay-go" -- finding a way to pay for any new spending rather than adding to the federal deficit. The unintended consequence is that tax proposals open legislation to modifications by the minority that would not otherwise be allowed.
Such was the case in March, when Democrats tried to pass a bill to give the District of Columbia a vote in the House. The bill included an additional seat for Utah and a minuscule tax increase to pay for two more House seats -- it called for expanding a provision of federal tax withholding law by .003 percent.
Republicans seized on the opening and moved to recommit the bill to committee, attaching new language that would have thrown out the District's strict anti-gun laws.
Worried that conservative, pro-gun Democrats would feel compelled to vote with GOP and kill the bill, Democratic leaders yanked it from the floor. They regrouped and split the bill into two tightly written measures, both of which passed and are pending in the Senate.
But the problem for Democrats was apparent. "We need to address that, or we're going to be, on every bill . . . [facing] an amendment totally unrelated to the substance of the bill," Hoyer said at the time.
This week, Democratic staffers privately discussed a rule change to limit the Republicans' ability to make motions to recommit. GOP leaders were incensed and threatened to use all available procedural techniques to block every bill except war spending legislation. But Democrats are hampered by their promise to run the chamber in a more open fashion than Republicans did when in the majority.
Hoyer agreed to hold off on further rule changes until Memorial Day and consult Boehner and Blunt on possible changes.
"The bottom line is, the war goes on," Mann said. "The majority uses the rules to structure debates and limit amendments on matters where Republicans have a chance to either break up the Democrats' winning coalition or embarrass them."