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Tactics on the Hill: An inevitable part of legislative process?

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Saturday, March 20, 2010; A04

If House Democrats pass a health-care bill this weekend, it would be the latest step in a legislative process that has included a Saturday night vote, shortly before midnight, on the original version of the bill in November; Senate approval on Christmas Eve; and a week in which "deem and pass" and "self-executing rule" replaced "reconciliation" as the latest bit of inexplicable arcana from inside the Beltway.

Why does Congress pass bills in such tortured ways?

The Democrats' primary response has been "They did it, too," referring to legislative maneuvers that Republicans used to get bills approved when they controlled Congress.

Republicans "were FOR deeming before they OPPOSED IT," the Democrats on the House Rules Committee wrote in a memo Friday. In 2003, House Republicans extended the usual length of a vote from 15 minutes to almost three hours, to pass a Medicare bill, as Democrats cried foul. The measure was finally approved at 5:53 a.m. on a Saturday.

Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio), current leader of the House Republicans, said that although deem and pass -- a procedure through which the House effectively deems a measure passed by approving a related bill -- "has been around for a long time . . . it's never been used for a bill so controversial and so massive in scope."

Congressional leaders often use such tactics to provide cover to lawmakers who oppose a measure pushed by their party's leadership but are being strongly urged to follow the party line.

Even so, leaders can sometimes persuade reluctant lawmakers to support a bill only on the day of the vote, or even in the midst of the vote, as Republicans did in 2003 on the Medicare bill. Party leaders on both sides tried to woo lawmakers on the floor during the 15-minute House vote on health care in November.

"Any good whip count requires some sort of event to shut it down," said Steve Elmendorf, who was a top aide to former House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.). "The deadline becomes a Friday, a recess -- in this case, Obama was leaving for Asia. Inevitably, the deadline slips 24 to 48 hours, and you end up in the middle of the night. It's not because you want people to vote on Sunday."

Votes on weekends, when people might be paying less attention to Washington, seem to be coming more frequently. But that is not necessarily because of Congress gimmicking with the schedule.

Rather, a grass-roots campaign led by good-government activists after the Wall Street bailout vote in 2008 led Congress to commit to posting bills online for 72 hours before any key vote. That policy pushed the current vote to the weekend, as the legislative text was released Thursday.

The Christmas Eve vote on health care in the Senate, meanwhile, came in part because Republicans in that chamber used a variety of legislative tactics there to delay the process and make Democrats feel the pressure of the oncoming holiday.

The tortured voting process is "not a nefarious plot," said Donald Wolfensberger, a former Republican staff director of the House Rules Committee who now directs the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. "Most leaders would like the votes to be earlier."

And what about the public? Do voters really care about all this process?

President Obama suggested this week that the answer is no, and polling and recent developments seem to back him up.

The 2003 vote over the Medicare bill prompted a huge outcry against the extended vote. Democrats tried to make it an election issue, but Republicans nevertheless kept control of Congress the next year.

"We screamed and yelled about the fact that they held it open for five hours. I don't think anybody cared," Elmendorf said.

And the prescription drug benefit created by the bill has proved so popular Democrats are trying to strengthen it in the current health-care legislation.

Recent polling suggests that, as Washington Post polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta wrote earlier this week, "The public's take on parliamentary procedure is based more on the result than the process."

Elmendorf agreed, saying that the current fracas is "overrated" as a political weapon.

But Republicans are seizing on the way the Democrats are passing the bill as much as the legislation. They say polls that show declining approval for Congress illustrate that Democrats' tactics are annoying voters.

"Lawmakers may think this gives [deem and pass] an out," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrote Friday in an essay on AOL News. "In reality, it guarantees that they will forever be remembered for trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the public, by claiming not to vote for something they did. This will be a career-defining and a Congress-defining vote that Americans won't forget."

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