This recess week affords enough quiet at the Capitol that you can almost hear House Republicans getting into a defensive crouch. It’s their best posture for preventing exposures of internal discord, the sort of fractious drama that could do as much as anything to sap their advantages this midterm election year.
House Democrats see the protective shell receding and are determined to pry it loose. But their tools are limited. And the one they’ve been talking about most enthusiastically in recent days — the discharge petition — has a high probability of failure.
It’s almost certainly not going to realize the stated legislative objective, which is to break the deadlock created by conservatives on both immigration and increasing the minimum wage. But neither is it likely to produce the unstated political objective, which is to push the GOP into looking like the sort of discordant and mean-spirited mess that’s undeserving of running the House for another two years.
The reason for those predictions is the same on both counts. There just aren't enough genuine moderates in the Republican conference, nor a sufficient number of endangered GOP incumbents, to give either discharge petition a chance for success.
Those who don’t remember how the procedurally complex and politically explosive procedure works are forgiven, because the discharge petition is infrequently deployed and succeeds only a fraction of the time.
The process was set up in 1910, after Speaker Joe Cannon’s autocratic era ended, to afford the rank and file on both sides an avenue for trumping a leadership decision to keep legislation bottled up. If a majority of members signs a petition demanding action on a bill that’s been stuck in committee for more than a month, then a floor motion to begin debating that measure becomes in order (is allowed) on the second and fourth Monday of every month.
Only one discharge petition has succeeded in the past 12 years, to push forth the 2002 campaign finance overhaul — the only instance since the civil rights era in which the process was used to enact a law opposed by the House majority leadership.
The reason is straightforward. Even in an era of rapidly evolving internal congressional mores, signing such a petition is seen as one of the most treacherous acts a majority caucus member can commit. Speaking out against a Boehner strategy may have become commonplace within the House GOP, voting against his wishes has become largely acceptable and even voting against his re-election as speaker was tacitly tolerated. But banding with the Democrats to usurp one of the speaker’s essential prerogatives, which is deciding the schedule, remains an unacceptable step over the loyalty line. Which is why at the outset of last fall’s budget impasse, when two dozen Republicans called for reopening the government without condition, not one of them joined the Democrats on a discharge petition that would have accomplished that goal.
There’s no reason to expect something different this year. In fact there are fewer Republicans who have an ideological or political reason to break ranks, on either immigration or the minimum wage, than might have been able to rationalize such a move last October.
And 20 to 25 Republican signatories would be required for any discharge petition to secure a majority of the House membership this year. (The exact number will depend on how many centrist or endangered Democrats decline to participate.)
At last week’s retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, House Democratic leaders announced that a signature drive would begin Feb. 24, as soon as the Presidents Day recess ends. They are seeking to force a vote on raising the minimum wage to $10.10 during the next two years. A second drive will begin closer to Election Day to force a House vote on the bipartisan Senate immigration bill, which combines bolstered border security with a path to citizenship for all of the estimated 11 million people now in the United States illegally. Both are priorities for President Barack Obama, and both enjoy solid support in public opinion.
On paper, there’s a better chance on the wage bill. That’s because three dozen House Republicans who voted in 2007 for legislation proposing a 40 percent increase in the guaranteed minimum, almost identical in size to the current proposal, remain in office. That was the bill paving the way for the current $7.25 hourly floor.
Those members are disproportionately from the Northeast and Florida, where raising the minimum wage polls particularly favorably. But a third of that group are either leaving the House this winter or hold committee chairmanships and have minimal incentive to poke Boehner in the eye. And everyone else looks for now to be a safe bet for re-election, no matter how hard the Democrats hammer away and call them unwilling to make a bold move in favor of something their constituents say they want.
The universe of theoretically "gettable" Republicans is smaller on immigration. Only 24 GOP members represent districts where Latinos account for more than a quarter of the population. Mitt Romney carried 20 of those districts, mostly by 10 points or more. That helps explain why none of the members seeking new terms to those seats (all in California and Texas) faces general-election anxiety. Of the four GOP members in highly Hispanic districts that went for Obama, just two are in close re-election fights: Jeff Denham and David Valadao, both from California’s Central Valley.
As the failure of last October’s end-the-shutdown discharge petition showed, Republicans aren’t going to sign unless their political lives depend on it — and probably not then, either.