The political maneuvering behind the proposed deal

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.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    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.

    Unwittingly? Ha ha ha. Of course they did it on purpose, because they wanted to shut down the government, as they have been planning to do since at least February. The consequences were not as they imagined, but it’s not like they accidentally changed House procedures.
    From what I have heard, the Senate solution is only until January or so. Crikey, are we going to have to go through this again so soon?

  2. says

    And meanwhile, the US becomes every day more of a punchline than an empire.

    I used to think the US Constitution brilliant and superior to the Westminster system. I now realize how incredibly wrong I was; the US system is sclerotic and impossible, if one group decides not to govern, particularly if one of the Houses lets there be rules obeyed that aren’t actually rules, like the whole filibuster mess and the anonymous “can’t even talk about that bill” holds. I’m looking at you, Harry Reid. You should be wearing a placard of shame alongside weepy Orange Julius. Imagine going several years without passing a budget! It’s insanity, completely ridiculous and rightly ridiculable.

    What a nightmare. Not for the first time, I have no envy at all for people living in the US.

  3. colnago80 says

    Actually technically speaking, there are 3 independents with one of them, Senator Murkowski of Alaska, caucusing with the Rethuglicans. Murkowski it should be recalled was primaried and defeated for reelection by a tea party Rethuglican. She subsequently ran as an independent and was elected by write in votes.

  4. colnago80 says

    This entire brouhaha in the House could have been bypassed by a discharge petition for force a vote on the Senate bill. The Democrats, assuming all of them voted as a block, would have had to get 18 Rethuglicans to sign on. Unfortunately, such is the power of the tea party minority that 18 Rethuglicans could not be found.

  5. colnago80 says

    Actually, it’s even worse then that. There is the so-called Hastert rule, initiated by a former Speaker of the House, which effectively says that the House majority leader, in this case Eric Cantor, shouldn’t bring a bill to the House floor for a vote unless there are sufficient Rethuglican votes to pass it without support from the other party. The only alternative is a discharge petition (see comment 2.1)

  6. Mano Singham says

    Yes, they did it on purpose but the ‘unwittingly’ refers to the fact that they did not anticipate that the move would backfire on them. They thought they would win the stare-down and thus did not want the Democrats to do an end-run around them and closed that door. But now that forces them to personally take responsibility for bringing the bill forward.

  7. says

    And even Hastert itself said he never called it a “rule”, nor even tried to have it made official. It was just his practice, as a way of mildly trying to put the brakes on Democratic Party initiatives – back in the day when that meant acting like The Loyal Opposition, rather than terrorist toddlers – that he wouldn’t bring legislation up for a vote if he didn’t think he could pass it with Republican votes. It’s a bit gamey, in the gamesmanship sense, but it’s within the bounds of reasonable dissent to a functioning government.

    And then they put their gitch on their heads, put pencils up their nose and went “wibble”. And too many people thought it was an act. :/

  8. filethirteen says

    Off topic, I’m already tired of the term “Rethuglican” and I don’t find it amusing. It’s hardly surprising that those in government don’t act mature when so much juvenile sniping goes on among supporters. Alternatively, perhaps look for a site where they use the term “Democretin” with abandon?

  9. colinhutton says

    Speaking as an Australian trying to understand the complexities of your arcane democratic systems, it certainly lowers the tone of an otherwise informative post and discussion.

  10. colnago80 says

    This attitude is one of things I despair of my fellow liberals. There seems to be a great reluctance on the part of liberals to fight dirty when the other fellow fights dirty. The Rethuglicans have been referring to the Democrats as the Democrat Party for 50 years. Time to give them some of their own medicine.

    This is one of the reasons why I like Ed Schultz, who is bad mouthed by folks like Ed Brayton because he fights dirty. Sometimes a knee to the groin approach is required.

  11. colinhutton says

    Not an Australian term, but, by the sound of it, they are probably not.. I will allow fuckwits, pissants and dickheads.

    I have no problem with a targeted knee to the groin approach. The problem with ‘rethuglian’ is that, while it may be witty the first time, it thereafter sounds smartarse/juvenile. As such, it becomes no more than a boring knee-jerk reaction.

  12. colnago80 says

    Pantywaists is a somewhat obsolete term these days as it has been replaced by wimps.

    As for the repeated use of Rethuglican, to each his own.

  13. lpetrich says

    From Economist magazine’s Intelligence Unit I got a “Democracy Index” listing for most of the nations of the world. From Wikipedia I got the lower-house voting system and systems of government. I put the three together to see what does best.

    The US scores 8 out of 10, with 20 countries doing better: Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Canada, Finland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria, Ireland, Germany, Malta, United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Mauritius, Uruguay, South Korea.

    All of them except the last two have Westminster / parliamentary systems; those ones have US-style presidential systems. Half of them elect their lower houses with party-list proportional representation. The rest use an assortment of systems, like mixed-member, parallel, single transferable vote, and instant runoff, with only Canada and the UK using first past the post like the US.

    The US is still rather good, better than 146 countries in the Economist’s list. But presidential systems and first-past-the-post elections are much more common below the US than above it in the list. So if the high-scoring countries are any guide, the ideal system would be a parliamentary republic with a ceremonial president.

  14. filethirteen says

    You’re mistaken if you think dirty fighting or fighting fire with fire is a successful strategy. That’s the strategy that the Tea Party uses and it harms more than it helps. I doubt that if Dr Singham lowered himself to trash-talking republicans he’d have half the readership that he has. But if you must have that, wouldn’t you be better off finding another blog where others concur with your viewpoint?

    If my “fellow liberals” hold your views then I seriously feel this urge to become republican. In case you remain obtuse and require the knee to the groin approach, follow the links.

  15. Frank says


    “This attitude is one of things I despair of my fellow liberals. There seems to be a great reluctance on the part of liberals to fight dirty when the other fellow fights dirty.”

    Yes. I am very reluctant to “fight dirty” irrespective of the other side’s tactics. It would take a rather dim view of the general electorate to conclude that dirty fights win elections that well run, reasoned, fact-based campaigns can’t.

    “The Rethuglicans have been referring to the Democrats as the Democrat Party for 50 years.”

    In other words, “the other party has been using sophomoric language for 50 years; it’s time that our party start being sophomoric too.”

    Why do you want to stoop to their level? If you have a better policy, explain it. Campaign on it. Please, don’t act like sixth-graders.

  16. colnago80 says

    Re Frank @ filethirteen

    I am afraid we are going to have to agree to disagree on this point, hopefully not disagreeably.

  17. colnago80 says

    I don’t know about the other countries mentioned but Germany elects 1/2 the Bundestag via party lists and 1/2 via constituencies.

    A particularly bad example of electing all the representatives by party lists is Israel, which ends up being “governed” by multiparty coalition governments that are at the mercy of their smaller member parties (the current government has, I believe, 5 parties in the ruling coalition).

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