House fast-track process for bipartisan bills threatened

Partisan tensions have led to unexpected requests for roll call votes on suspension bills

House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney and Minority Whip Steve Scalise are defending the current halt on the fast-track process for getting bipartisan bills passed.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney and Minority Whip Steve Scalise are defending the current halt on the fast-track process for getting bipartisan bills passed. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 9, 2021 at 4:07pm, Updated at 5:23pm

House leaders are discussing how to salvage a bipartisan tradition of fast-tracking bipartisan bills after rank-and-file members in both parties have used procedural tactics in recent weeks to derail their quick consideration.

The House typically begins every legislative week by debating bills on its suspension calendar. The calendar is designed to fast-track bipartisan, largely noncontroversial bills for floor votes under suspension of the rules, meaning they do not have to go through the Rules Committee and the House does not need to adopt a rule to debate them.

Such measures have broad bipartisan support — a necessity since passing a bill under suspension of the rules requires two-thirds support.

Many of the bills pass on voice vote, but recently some members have called for unexpected roll call votes.

The procedural objections to a voice vote are not on substance, but rather reflect partisan tensions.

On Feb. 23, Illinois Democrat Sean Casten asked for a roll call vote on a bill sponsored by Mississippi Republican Trent Kelly that would rename a post office in his home state. Casten’s objection was over allowing someone who voted against certifying the 2020 election results to have a bill prioritized for floor time.

Democratic leaders whipped their caucus to vote for the bill, concerned that objecting to any measure sponsored by Republicans who voted against certifying the election results — which includes the top two GOP leaders and more than half the conference — would derail the tradition of efficiently passing noncontroversial bills.

Ultimately, 14 Democrats joined Casten in voting against Kelly’s bill, but frustrations simmered.

The following week, House leaders did not schedule any bills on the suspension calendar. When they tried this week to bring suspensions back, they encountered Republican objections.

“We have postponed those 13 suspension bills,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. “Some Republicans, not the Republican leadership, but some Republicans, had threatened to ask for a vote on each one of those 13 bills, which would have taken some 10 hours of voting.”

One of those bills was a measure from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to award congressional gold medals to the Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police Department for protecting the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene led the effort to ask for roll call votes, she confirmed on Twitter: “What’s wrong with Congress having a recorded vote on every bill?”

Greene, a freshman whom the House removed from her committee assignments over her support of conspiracy theories and violent threats against Democrats, has also been offering motions to adjourn that have delayed recent House business.

“It’s Marjorie doing her committee work,” joked Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, who co-founded the House Freedom Caucus that helped elect Greene to Congress.

Texas Republican Chip Roy also confirmed he had considered requesting roll call votes on the suspension measures: “We need to continue to have conversations about every bill that’s moving through the floor.”

The larger point, Roy and other Republicans said, is to ensure the minority has a voice in the institution.

The suspension calendar “is one of the few things left that have a bipartisan way to move things. Let’s work together to get it done right,” Roy said.

“But yesterday, jamming through 10 Democrat bills [and] three Republican bills on a Monday we fly back, while we’re jamming through a $2 trillion bill, which we have no say in, while we’ve got fences around the Capitol, we’ve metal detectors, etc. … We need to have a conversation in this town about how to make the House work again. That’s what we’re doing,” he added.

Republican leaders defended the approach.

“That’s not a formal leadership position, but again, leadership has been very vocal on the Republican side that we want an open congressional process,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise told reporters.

“This process is not going to be able to continue smoothly as long as the Democrats continue to try to ram pieces of legislation through without adequate hearings, without adequate debate and discussion, without adequate ability to offer amendments, without a motion to recommit,” House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney said.

Some Republican complaints may resolve themselves. A House rule exception that allowed leaders to bring bills to the floor without committee hearings and markups expires April 1.

Democrats have also allowed limited amendments on some bills, including two gun control bills and a collective bargaining rights measure brought to the floor under a rule this week.

Hoyer told CQ Roll Call later Tuesday that he talked to House Minority Leader McCarthy about the suspensions dispute.

“He’s working on it,” Hoyer said, noting that he hopes McCarthy reaches an agreement with GOP members that would “get us back to a place where suspensions are not the place of confrontation.”

McCarthy confirmed that he’s talking with Hoyer but declined to comment further.

Hoyer said he hopes Republicans will allow most suspension bills to proceed on voice vote, absent policy reasons to request a roll call, as is common practice, and that no changes to House rules will be needed to resolve the problem.

“But at some point time, if this continues, we’ll have to deal with it,” the Maryland Democrat said.

Chris Marquette contributed to this report.