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Pardon another dance analogy, but the House-Senate leadership exit strategy for the final fiscal 2011 government funding bill closely tracked Michael Jackson’s signature “moon walk” with its smooth, backward glide. It was an apt dance for retreating from such an abysmal fiscal mess. And it was executed so adroitly that it made a very difficult feat look almost easy.
Although a collective sigh of relief went up when negotiators shook hands at the eleventh hour on the April 8 drop-dead date, everyone understood that more time would be needed to put the final details into legislative form. So another week’s extension, with $2 billion more in cuts, was readily agreed to by both chambers. What most people didn’t fully appreciate was the pressures put on the bill drafters to complete their work well before the next Friday deadline. That’s because Republicans pledged in a new House rule this year not to consider any unreported bill until the third day of its availability.
That requirement, widely misreported as a 72-hour rule, is actually a two-day layover (the same as for reported bills). When the final draft of the bill was not completed until after midnight on Monday, April 11, and not posted online until 1:50 a.m. Tuesday, House leaders decided to delay its consideration from Wednesday to Thursday rather than face charges of hypocrisy. That did not prevent the special rule for the measure from being considered on Wednesday. It provided for one hour of debate on the spending bill, with no amendments, and 20 minutes debate on each of two “sidecar” resolutions directing the Clerk to make corrections in the enrollment of the bill.
Although the rule waived all points of order against consideration of the appropriations bill and two resolutions, the report on the rule was careful to point out that the committee did not intend for the blanket waiver to “encompass a waiver of clause 11 of rule XXI (prohibiting the consideration of an unreported measure until the third calendar day on which it has been available), as the bill is currently scheduled to be considered on the third day on which it was made available or thereafter.”
The purpose of the sidecar resolutions was to carry out another part of the bipartisan, bicameral agreement, and that was the House GOP’s insistence that the Senate first vote on two items that had been dropped from the original House-passed bill — provisions defunding Obamacare and Planned Parenthood. I have always called these “chaser resolutions” because they are sent chasing after the main bill to effect further changes before the bill is sent to the president. The device was originally used to correct minor errors caught too late, but was later found convenient for making more substantive changes for political or policy purposes.
The main difference this time was that the chasers would be sent to the Senate first and voted on before the House Clerk could even send the main bill over. Instead of being chasers, the resolutions were the lead dogs, with full knowledge they would soon be dead dogs.
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) raised a point of order against the special rule on grounds that it violated the requirement that the Clerk immediately enroll measures passed and send them on to the Senate or the president. His point of order was overruled on grounds that the special rule made an exception to that requirement. It is the constitutional right of either chamber, after all, to change its rules at any time. That’s precisely the purpose of special rules.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) secured a unanimous consent agreement to pave the way for this scenario. It provided that when the Senate received the papers from the House, it first consider the two concurrent resolutions, debatable for two minutes each, and with no amendments; and that it then consider the main bill, also for two minutes and no amendments. All three measures would require 60 votes for passage. This is routinely done on major bills in lieu of having to go through the 60-vote cloture process to overcome threatened filibusters. As expected, the two sidecar resolutions were rejected and the main bill passed overwhelmingly, 81-19.
Prior to that Senate vote, the leadership’s carefully choreographed dance almost unraveled in the House when a Congressional Budget Office explanation posted the day before the vote revealed dramatically less in savings than many had been led to believe: The $37.7 billion in budget authority cuts would translate into only $352 million in actual deficit reductions (outlays) this year, with the bulk of an estimated $20 billion to $25 billion in deficit reductions occurring in fiscal years 2012 to 2016.
It took 81 House Democrats to save the day when 59 Republicans voted “no.” No sooner had the moon-walkers successfully backed the fiscal 2011 bill off stage than they pivoted back on with the fiscal 2012 House budget resolution in tow —a timely partner switch to fast-dance forward.
Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.