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The New Congress Could Bring Endless Showdowns
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The New Congress Could Bring Endless Showdowns

A look at one point of procedural leverage for House Republicans.

Rep. Thomas Massie (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Republicans are gearing up for a messy speakership election when the new Congress kicks off on January 3. Regardless of who wins, the GOP’s slim majority means individual members will be able to wield tremendous power on party-line votes—and cause chaos on the House floor—for the foreseeable future.

Using just one point of leverage, members of the House Freedom Caucus could achieve the procedural changes they want, such as opening bills to amendments before votes, even if some of their proposals aren’t initially incorporated in the House rules or the GOP conference’s rules.

The tool in question: critical procedural votes the chamber holds before debating and voting on a given bill. Members usually reflexively support their party on these procedural votes. But in the new Congress, any small group of Republicans wanting to convince GOP leaders to make concessions on a variety of priorities could throw off the legislative calendar, stymie leadership’s plans, and put the speaker in jeopardy.

These procedural votes set parameters for debating legislation, such as how long a bill’s consideration will take and whether any amendments will be allowed. Known as “rules,” they almost always pass on a party-line vote, supported by the majority party in the chamber and opposed by the minority party. That pattern holds regardless of any cross-party support for the underlying bill itself.

A campaign against rules brought forward by GOP leaders could secure the policy or procedural priorities any handful of members desire. Such a campaign could also be enough to take down party leaders in an extreme scenario, according to members. A speaker who can’t even effectively set the House’s agenda would have clearly lost the ability to lead—and would face tremendous pressure to step down.

“There’s always a way to take out the speaker,” Kentucky Republican Rep. Thomas Massie told reporters in September. “Like when hackers find an exploit, the exploit gets patched and then you go find another exploit, right? There’s a way to change the speaker. You don’t have to use the same path. So there’s always a way. You could just vote against the ruling of the chair like 10 times in a row, and boom, the speaker’s done. Take down the rule for a whole week. Speaker’s done. There’s so many ways to do it.”

The question is whether enough Republican members will be willing to take that kind of a step, be it to push out a speaker, to make procedural changes, or to advance policy priorities. Enforcing party discipline on these votes is one of leadership’s top goals in each Congress. Members voting against leadership on a rule could face reprisals related to committee assignments, campaign donations, and access to events, said Josh Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.

Votes on rules are “absolutely a possible flashpoint” in the upcoming session and are a “traditional way for a faction to flex on the floor,” Matt Glassman, another senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, told The Dispatch on Monday. But much of that maneuvering takes place before a rule actually receives a vote.

Just last week, progressive Democrats threatened to take down the rule for considering the annual defense authorization package, in an effort to block provisions sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin. The package advanced without Manchin’s priorities.

But examples of rules actually failing on the floor have been rare in recent decades. In 2015, one got close: 34 conservatives opposed a rule setting up debate on a bill giving then-President Barack Obama authority to negotiate trade deals. Republican leaders held the vote open for more than a half-hour as they worked to get members to reverse their positions. And they had to win support from eight Democrats to get it over the finish line.

In this bitterly divided era, Republicans won’t be able to count on that kind of last-minute support from Democrats. GOP leaders will have to constantly cut deals with their own members to keep the conference unified.

“In order to run the House, you need a working majority,” said Glassman. “Anyone who holds the balance of power, any faction of six or seven people, if they’re hellbent on just completely defanging the speakership from being able to lead, they just vote down the rules.”

On the Floor

The House is scheduled to consider a variety of bills, including one already passed by the Senate that aims to prepare government agencies for a future of quantum computing and the likelihood that current encryption systems will become outdated.

Members are also expected to consider a short-term government funding measure this week to give negotiators more time to reach agreement on a broader spending package ahead of a Friday deadline.

The Senate is considering judicial and executive nominees, as well as the annual defense authorization package this week. Senators may also consider a resolution barring American support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Key Hearings

  • Senators on an investigative subcommittee heard from witnesses and experts about sexual abuse of female inmates in federal prisons this morning. Information and video here.
  • FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried had been slated to testify before the House Financial Services Committee today, but he was arrested Monday in the Bahamas. The committee forged on without him. Information and video here.
  • Members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee met this morning to examine white supremacy and anti-democratic extremist groups. Information and video here.
  • The Senate Rules and Administration Committee will hold an oversight hearing with testimony from the chief of the U.S. Capitol Police this afternoon. Information and livestream here.
  • The House Oversight and Reform panel will hold a hearing Wednesday morning on anti-LGBTQ violence and extremism. Information and livestream here.
  • The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis will hold its final hearing Wednesday afternoon to examine how to prepare for and prevent the next pandemic. Information and livestream here.
  • Members of the House Homeland Security Committee will convene a hearing Thursday morning on the deadly shooting in Uvalde, Texas, earlier this year and bipartisan responses to gun violence. Information and livestream here.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.