It looks like the might finally be a deal to break the government shut down and debt ceiling deadlock. However, given the general instability, one can never be certain until it actually is passed into law.
As someone who feels that one should follow due process unless there is a clear and imminent danger that requires one to shred the normal rules, I tend to get sucked in by discussions about how things actually work in government. The current efforts to find ways to end the government shut down and raise the debt ceiling have resulted in me learning more about how the US Congress works than I ever thought I would need. Here is what I have learned.
The House has 435 members which requires 218 votes to pass a bill. Currently three seats are vacant, meaning that only 217 votes are needed for a majority. There are 232 Republicans and 200 Democrats while the Senate has 52 Democrats, 46 Republicans and 2 Independents who tend to caucus with the Democrats.
In the maneuvering over the budget shut down, attention has focused on the Republican controlled House of Representatives since this is the body that is supposed to initiate all spending bills and then send them to the Senate for passage. What has been happening so far is that the House kept passing continuing resolution bills that fund the government and raise the debt ceiling but only for a short while, but also adding provisions that either defund the Affordable Care Act or delay it for a year, or add some additional restrictions.
The Democratic-controlled Senate then stripped away those additions and sent back a ‘clean’ continuing resolution. The House then sends another bill that was similar to the one they sent earlier, which again gets stripped by the Senate and sent back. So this is the tennis game that has been played so far. They even call each transfer from one chamber to another a ‘volley’.
But while the Senate has been voting on almost strict party lines there have been crossovers in the House and the actual vote totals should not be taken too much at face value. For example, one of the earlier House votes to restrict the ACA passed by a vote of 228 to 201 with 3 not voting, while the next one passed by a vote of 228 to 199 with 4 not voting.
The thing to note about the vote totals is that it includes some maneuvering. For example, there are a few Republicans who voted with the Democrats against the bills because they felt that a one-year delay was a sell-out and they wanted permanent defunding. Similarly, there are about 8 or 9 Democrats who represent districts that are quite conservative. These Democrats wait until the vote exceeds 217, and then vote with the Republicans since their vote won’t affect the outcome. If the outcome had been in doubt, they would likely have voted the party line. One Democrat who has been doing this is Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona, who entered Congress for the first time in 2010. A bisexual and former Mormon, she was thought to be an atheist but has been circumspect about her religious beliefs since her election, only saying that she believes in a secular government.
But in the last few days, most Republicans seem to have abandoned any serious attempts to destroy the ACA and have resorted to finding some face-saving ways to get themselves out of this mess without seeming to have totally surrendered. Byron York explains how and why the two houses keep punting the bills back and forth and what lay behind the debacle last night. He says that to understand the dynamic, one has to focus on the fact that the Republicans in the senate are a minority while they are in the majority in the House. Hence they think that the House can pass a stronger bill that can then be sent to the Senate. This body will necessarily water it down since the Democrats are in the majority, while still being acceptable to them
But if the Senate Republicans were to take the lead, they would have to propose a much weaker bill to start with to get it passed in their chamber and then send it to certain doom in the House. They also face the problem that a bill that is initiated in the Senate would be a Democratic one and face one of the many procedural roadblocks that people like Ted Cruz could throw in its way. But a bill that came from the House would be a Republican one and unlikely to be blocked.
This is why there was such consternation last night when it appeared that the House Republicans couldn’t agree on anything at all to be passed and just gave up and went home. This meant that the Senate had to act. The only way that such a bill could pass in the House is if a vote is allowed by the Speaker and it passes largely with Democratic votes, which would be political trouble for him. The Republicans unwittingly helped tie the noose around their own necks a few weeks ago by being too clever and abruptly closing a mechanism by which any member of the House could bring a bill to the floor for a vote if there was an impasse between the House and Senate. On September 30, just before the shut down went into effect, the Republican leadership quietly changed the rules so that only the House majority leader could do so. If not for that, a Democrat could have brought the Senate bill to the floor for a vote and passed it with some Republican support, absolving the leadership of any blame. But as a result of their tactic, the House Republican leadership now has to take full ownership of any bill they bring to the floor, risking the wrath of the extremists.
So there we are, with the House Republican leadership hoist by their own petard.