House Democrats are learning a basic lesson of procedural politics: Those who engage in political gamesmanship can sometimes be hoisted with their own petard (an explosive device used to breach doors and gates).
The recent imbroglio over Senate-passed trade legislation is a prime example. House Democrats openly defied the president’s request for both Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance by voting against both. They first succeeded by voting down the TAA title — a program they long championed for retraining workers displaced by trade. They then failed by eight votes to defeat the TPA portion that gives the president authority to negotiate trade agreements that can be put to an up-or-down vote in Congress. Their unsuccessful effort to blow up the entire package by torpedoing their own submarine left final disposition of the overall Senate amendment in a state of legislative limbo.
That’s when Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, stepped up to a floor microphone and moved to reconsider the TAA vote. A roll-call vote on the question was postponed at the discretion of the chair. Under House rules, a postponed vote may not be delayed more than two legislative days. When day two rolled around with no sign of any Democratic vote switches, the Rules Committee, in an unrelated intelligence authorization rule, inserted a special proviso that allowed for further postponement of the TAA reconsideration vote to as late as July 30.
The motion to reconsider a vote in the House is rarely used, and is hardly ever exercised by the speaker. The last instance cited in the House rules manual when a speaker offered a reconsideration motion was in October 1997, when Speaker Newt Gingrich moved from the speaker’s rostrum to reconsider passage by a single vote of the D.C. appropriations bill. Gingrich did so to pre-empt a Democrat’s simultaneous demand for reconsideration, and to set up a tabling motion by a GOP ally. To qualify for offering a reconsideration motion, a member must be on the prevailing side of the question. In other words, Boehner had to vote “nay” on the TAA title in order to move reconsideration.
The bifurcated vote strategy on the Senate trade amendment was designed by Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to exploit majority Democratic support for TAA and majority Republican support for TPA. There was a fear that a single motion to concur in the whole package would lose. However, Pelosi’s last minute announcement from the floor that she would oppose the entire package proved a tipping point: the TAA title lost, 126-302, with 144 Democrats and 158 Republicans in opposition.
Less than a week later, House Republican leaders presented a new plan to tack TPA onto an unrelated House bill allowing penalty-free withdrawals by federal law enforcement officers, firefighters and air traffic controllers from their TSP retirement accounts (as if there weren’t already enough T-acronyms in the mix). The House adopted the TPA amendment by a 10 vote margin and sent it to the Senate.
By using the pension bill that had already passed both houses in different forms, the House made it easier for the Senate to take up the TPA amendment since at that stage the question of consideration in the Senate is privileged and not subject to a filibuster, though the measure itself still was. Consequently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture motions on both the TPA and TAA measures, with the latter being attached to a separate trade preferences extension bill for African countries.
The fate of TPA in the Senate obviously hinged on pro-trade Democrats receiving iron-clad assurances from GOP leaders in both houses that the TAA bill would not be de-railed on its separate track to the White House. Apparently, those assurances were forthcoming: McConnell’s cloture motion on TPA passed, 60-37. Once over that procedural hump, the substantive votes that followed in rapid succession were a formality, and the bills rolled on to the White House.
House Democrats wisely abandoned talk of defeating TAA a second time in hopes of forcing a presidential veto of TPA. Petard-II made no sense. Had the Republicans’ fallback strategy failed, it is doubtful they would have pursued Boehner’s reconsideration vote, let alone have concocted yet another “bizarre” strategy (as Boehner characterized the month's procedural contortions). One more clever ploy could petard-hoist the GOP into the same blowback orbit as the Democrats. Petards, after all, are readily available in red or blue and can elevate the stature of any party animal.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.
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