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GOP Halts Rules Change

Republicans threw the House floor into procedural chaos Wednesday in a successful attempt to thwart what they decried as a Democratic “power grab” to alter House rules in a way that would limit long-standing minority rights to offer alternative measures on the floor.

At one point, Republicans threatened to tie up floor action on all bills but the Iraq War supplemental leading up to the Memorial Day recess if Democrats tried to move forward with the rule change. “We’ll shut the floor down and at the very least delay everything except a clean bill to fund the troops unless we get some kind of an assurance that this isn’t going to happen,” a GOP leadership aide said early Wednesday.

For nearly four hours Republican lawmakers tied up floor debate on the Defense authorization bill with procedural votes before Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) reached a short-term truce in the afternoon to punt on the issue at least until after the Memorial Day recess.

Hoyer disputed GOP claims that Democrats were planning to use the rule that set debate on the fiscal 2008 budget resolution as a vehicle to change rules as they pertain to motions to recommit, one of the few procedural items in the minority party’s tool box that allows them to offer legislative alternatives when a bill hits the floor.

“Despite Republicans’ claims, no rule change to end this political gamesmanship has been formally proposed,” Hoyer countered in a statement late Wednesday.

In fact, most Democrats plead ignorance on the issue. In response to the floor fight, the subject was broached during a Rules Committee hearing Wednesday on the budget resolution, but Democrats quickly dismissed any suggestion that a rule change was afoot.

“There’s no great plan” to amend the rules, said Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.).

“It’s not in the rule and it’s not in the budget resolution,” echoed Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.).

Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), a Rules Committee member, said he was unaware of any such proposal, and had received no information from Democratic leadership: “I haven’t heard of any of this until I heard it from reporters.”

GOP aides said Republican floor staffers were tipped off around noon Wednesday that Democrats were considering the budget rule as a vehicle to change the chamber’s rules on motions to recommit. The news prompted an immediate meeting in Boehner’s office, where Republican leaders decided to “go to war” on the floor, said one senior GOP aide.

Although no rules change was ever offered by Democrats on Wednesday, Republicans insisted that it was the majority’s intention and Democrats would have moved forward with it if the GOP had not caused a floor fight to draw attention to the esoteric maneuvering to change House rules — which are rarely reopened in the middle of a session.

And while few Democratic lawmakers said they had any knowledge of a plan to change the rules, it is clear that senior Democratic staff was aware of the plan and actively discussing the rules change — and the GOP reaction — on Wednesday.

“Also, putting House Rules changes in the budget conference report Rules is a major thing — the R’s will certainly go nuclear tomorrow — but we will just have to suffer through that,” wrote Rob Cogorno, a senior Hoyer aide, in an e-mail obtained by Roll Call that was sent to senior aides to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Slaughter and Spratt, among others.

“I totally concur that this is a BIG deal,” wrote Jerry Hartz, a senior aide to Pelosi, calling for a leadership meeting to discuss the move, “and the Leadership has to thoroughly understand what they are taking on before going forward. No question about it.”

Democrats included a new rule in the 110th Congress opening day rules package that institutes a “pay-as-you-go” budget point of order that restricts consideration of rules for “any bill, joint resolution, amendment, or conference report if the provisions of such measure affecting direct spending and revenues have the net effect of increasing the deficit or reducing the surplus.”

The new rule has caused unintended consequences for Democrats because when applied to legislation across the board, it broadens the germaneness of what the minority party can offer in its motions to recommit — which can mean trouble on the floor in a body that is not designed to give the minority party significant floor rights.

Republicans have been successful 10 times since January on such motions — more than Democrats had in their entire 12 years in the minority — but only two involved the PAYGO provision, GOP aides said.

Aggravated over Republican success in a series of recommit motions, Democrats began mulling the question of how to alter House rules in late March.

At that time, Hoyer asserted that Democrats would reconsider germaneness provisions adopted in conjunction with the PAYGO guidelines.

The spending guidelines, which require any new expenses to be offset in the federal budget, opened some legislation, including the D.C. voting rights bill, to modifications that would not otherwise be allowed.

Republicans managed to temporarily derail the voting measure, for instance, by offering a motion to abolish the city’s long-standing handgun ban. Democratic leadership pulled the measure from the floor, and later salvaged the bill by dividing it into two parts — one providing for the addition of D.C. and Utah House seats, while another offset the cost of the legislation — to effectively block a second GOP attack on the bill.

In the meantime, Democrats also instructed their rank-and-file Members at an April Caucus meeting to oppose any motion-to-recommit deemed a “killer” technical amendment, or one that would shelve legislation indefinitely.

But several Members, some speaking on background, noted that Democrats have not otherwise issued an all-encompassing edict on how to vote on motions, allowing lawmakers to make those determinations on their own.

One point of contention among Democratic leaders has focused on whether voting against all such motions — which Republicans have framed as potential campaign issues — could hurt vulnerable new Members, according to one Democratic source.

“There has been some confusion in the way this has been handled by the majority,” acknowledged Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.). He added that although some motions to recommit are clearly politically motivated, “People didn’t want to be viewed as voting against things that were good.”

While noting that he has not formed an opinion on what Democrats should address specifically in any potential rules change, Hinchey said the topic should be discussed.

“I think it’s worth look at and considering. The process here has to be productive. A lot of time is being wasted,” he said.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) suggested angst over the issue largely stems from freshman lawmakers, many of whom are “spooked” by the process of procedural votes on topics that seem critical. “They will learn,” he said.

Members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, the main proponents of PAYGO rules, have held discussions with leadership on how to address the inadvertent problem created by the spending guidelines, but those suggestions have not been adopted, according to Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), a co-chairman of the group.

“Our recommendation to fix the issue … was to create a scorecard,” Boyd said.

That proposal essentially would exempt any measure from germaneness provisions — and avoid potential attacks by the minority — as long as its impact on the federal budget is less than $5 million. Any spending related to such measures would instead be posted to a scorecard that must later be balanced against the federal budget.

Although Spratt has endorsed the proposal, Boyd said, Democratic leaders declined to include it in the budget resolution.

Boehner called off the procedural fight Wednesday afternoon after he, Hoyer, and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) met privately and Hoyer agreed to make no moves until after the recess.

“I’ve made it clear to Mr. Hoyer for several months that if he attempted to go down this path that we would have no choice but to shut down the whole action in the House,” Boehner told reporters following the meeting, adding that Democrats are only frustrated because Republicans have been “crafty enough to win.”

Boehner further said that Hoyer agreed to consult with the minority before any major changes are attempted.

Hoyer countered that Republicans are using motions to recommit to cause chaos on the floor, and criticized the GOP for delaying consideration of the defense bill.

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