GOP Wary of Parliamentary Tweaks

Posted December 12, 2008 at 6:12pm

Republicans are gearing up for a battle to protect a parliamentary maneuver that has helped them remain relevant in the face of a Democratic majority.

Democrats contend that no decision has been made on whether to move forward with a rule change for motions to recommit, but the prospect has Republicans in an uproar.

“That would blow things up in the House on the first day,” said Don Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Wolfensberger, who served as the Republican chief of staff for the House Rules Committee in the 104th Congress and is now a contributing writer to Roll Call, said any attempt by House Democrats to further marginalize the GOP minority is at odds with President-elect Barack Obama’s message of bipartisan cooperation.

Democratic leaders have reason to want the procedure eliminated or tweaked.

In the 110th Congress, Republicans were able to lure vulnerable Democrats into voting for motions to recommit. Those motions previously had been dismissed as purely partisan procedural votes when Republicans were in the majority.

As a result, 25 motions to recommit passed in the 110th, as opposed to 14 in the 12 years that Democrats were the minority party.

From the 101st to the 109th Congress, only 7.6 percent of motions passed the House, according to a Feb. 2 Congressional Research Service report.

“I hope they don’t change the rules,” Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the Rules Committee, said in an interview Friday.

He added that Democratic actions during the last year left him concerned that change was indeed on its way. He pointed to a Nov. 20 Congressional Research Service report — commissioned by Democrats — that explored “options for change” to the motion to recommit as an indicator of a possible rules change.

A one-page summary of the 28-page report directly refers to discussions of rules changes to prevent the minority from using the procedure to derail majority-backed objectives.

“Some have expressed support for changing chamber rules in a way that would limit specific difficulties for the majority posed by the motion to recommit, while still preserving the original intent of the motion to allow the minority to have the opportunity to get a vote on a policy option of their choosing,” the report said.

Jo Maney, a spokeswoman for Dreier, said: “We are at their mercy as far as their rules package goes.”

Maney said Democrats never settled on an internal strategy on how to deal with the parliamentary maneuvers, which forced Democrats to pull several bills, creating chaos on the House floor on at least one occasion.

Democrats were not willing to speculate on what the rules package would contain, said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“At the end of each Congress, the rules of the House are reviewed,” he said. “No decisions have been made, and this is nothing more than speculation at this time.”

Republicans used the motion to recommit for one of their earliest victories in the 110th Congress: In March 2007, the GOP blocked a Washington, D.C., voting rights bill by tying it with legislation to lift the city’s gun ban. Knowing what was coming, Pelosi pulled the voting rights bill from the floor.

It was the first major victory for the Republican minority, which then continued to use the maneuver to assert a small amount of clout. For years, the procedure had been seen as a party loyalty vote, but the Republicans changed that view.

Dreier conceded that there was little Republicans could do to prevent Democrats from making the change, but he said that appealing to the public’s sense of fairness could create an outcry if the Congressional Democrats are perceived as abusing their increased power.

“We will just do what we can.” he said. “This has been the most closed Congress in history … and the American people need to know.”