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After a series of early missteps, Speaker John Boehner is leaving nothing to chance when it comes to running the floor. The Ohio Republican is even going so far as to handpick who will preside over this week’s contentious debate on the continuing resolution.
While the line-up has yet to be finalized, Boehner is expected to give turns in the Speaker’s chair to a handful of seasoned Members. Atop the list of possible gavel holders are Reps. Mac Thornberry (Texas), Steven LaTourette (Ohio), Candice Miller (Mich.) and Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.). Miller and Capito presided over last month’s floor vote to repeal the health care reform law.
Freshman Members are often enlisted to sit in the Speaker’s chair during routine debates. But aides and Members say the stakes are too high to trust an inexperienced hand during the open rule on the continuing resolution. An open rule allows for an unlimited amount of amendments, and in the case of this week’s continuing resolution, both sides have been examining potential opportunities to put the other party on defense.
“Next week, for the first time ever, the House will consider a CR under an open process — and it is the first CR that will actually cut spending,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “A wise, steady and impartial hand holding the gavel will be essential.”
In 1996, after Republicans assumed control of the House the last time, few Members had the experience of serving in the majority. This year, however, there are plenty of veterans who have presided over the floor. Ex-Rep. Ray LaHood (Ill.), now President Barack Obama’s Transportation secretary, was considered one of the Republicans’ most adept at running the chamber, and he still holds the record for most hours in the chair.
Boehner has a deep bench of Members who know the rules and procedures, but that hasn’t saved the new majority from making some early mistakes. Last week Republicans broke their own House rules by keeping a vote open past 7 p.m. in a rushed — and unsuccessful — attempt to muster a two-thirds vote to pass an extension of the USA PATRIOT Act. The biggest procedural snafu came in January, however, when the GOP moved to clear the voting records of National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) and Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) after it was revealed the two men had not been officially sworn in on the floor.
Democrats sought to capitalize on the blunder, and in an interview, Rep. Anthony Weiner recalled doing so thanks to being called on by Miller, who was presiding at the time.
“I was recognized and got some time on the floor that perhaps I shouldn’t have had,” the New York Democrat said.
Weiner was called on for a parliamentary inquiry; he used the opportunity to take control of the proceedings and try to score a few points.
“Are the Members of Congress who have not been duly sworn in entitled to be paid for the days of service in which they were here and were not sworn in?” he asked.
Miller replied, “The gentleman has not stated a proper parliamentary inquiry.”
It was a rare misstep for Miller, a regular in the chair. But the complexity and the pace of that January debate “gave me the opportunity to claim the floor when I probably shouldn’t have,” Weiner said.
The presiding officer has significant influence over the flow of debate on the floor. Impartiality is key, and parliamentarians are helpful lieutenants, Members and aides said.
“It’s like a referee; you need someone who can be decisive. The chamber will walk all over anybody who is not decisive,” said Quinn Gillespie & Associates’ John Feehery, a former aide to then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
“It’s important the person in the chair not be red meat to the other side,” LaTourette said. “If you put someone who’s identified as a very partisan Republican in the chair, the other side would say, ‘Oh no, am I going to get treated fairly?’”
Even Weiner, who identified himself as “one of the top five more partisan Members of Congress,” said he kept himself in check while he served in the chair.
How Members perform in the chair sticks with them long after their career in Congress ends.
Former Rep. Ellen Tauscher became one of her party’s most skillful presiding officers and logged more hours than any of her colleagues before leaving the House for the State Department in 2009. The California Democrat was in the chair in 2008 when Republicans staged a walkout to protest Democratic efforts to subpoena former Bush White House officials; she later presided over a rare secret session called by the GOP to discuss the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.
Tauscher’s reputation for running the floor was a celebrated part of her career. But for former Rep. Mike McNulty, a missed call as the presiding officer became a stain on his Congressional résumé. In 2007, the New York Democrat prematurely gaveled down a vote, announcing it defeated on a 214-214 tie. Republicans yelled “shame” on the floor and said the final tally was 215-213 in their favor.
A bipartisan panel investigated and determined the vote was gaveled down incorrectly, but it stopped short of admonishing McNulty. Instead, the panel said the events were the result of “the perfect storm: a long and contentious week; a close vote on a politically sensitive issue; the lateness of the hour; urging from the Majority Leader and other Members to close the vote.”
No doubt Boehner is looking to avoid a similar event.
“It’s big stakes on the CR and people are watching; this is really kind of the House of Representatives on display,” Feehery said. “The most important thing will be that whoever is presiding plays well on TV.”