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Democrats Again Look to Change GOP Motions

After Defeats, Leaders Studying Ways to Neuter Republicans’ Motions to Recommit

Exasperated over Republicans’ continued efforts — and occasional success — in thwarting the House floor schedule, Democratic leaders acknowledged Tuesday they are reviewing the chamber’s rules to determine how to curb the minority’s ability to put up roadblocks at critical moments in the legislative process.

House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D) said the committee’s Democrats have begun meeting with both current and former Parliamentarians to discuss the chamber’s rules and potential changes.

The New York lawmaker said those discussions have focused in part on the motion to recommit — one of the few procedural items in the minority party’s toolbox that allows them to offer legislative alternatives when a bill hits the floor, and that Republicans have used to force difficult votes on Democrats or prompted legislation to be pulled from the floor — as well as other procedures, which she declined to detail.

Slaughter said no timeline exists for the review or potential alterations, however. “Nothing is imminent. We want to take our time and do it right,” she said.

But one Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said the majority is considering neutering the motion-to-recommit process and converting it to little more than a last-chance amendment for the minority party.

Under current House rules, the minority’s motion can effectively shelve legislation through minor alterations to the language of their motion — specifically designating for a bill to be returned to its committee “promptly,” rather than the usual “forthwith.”

Republican leaders have used that strategy to force Democrats to either vote against measures they would otherwise support or vote to kill their own bill. Earlier this month, the GOP used that procedure to target a bill governing federal wiretapping and surveillance programs, prompting Democrats to scrub an expected vote.

Another Democratic lawmaker, who also is familiar with discussions and asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of those conversations, said that is only one option under consideration.

“We don’t want to limit the minority’s ability to have legitimate motions to recommit,” the Democrat said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) railed against Republicans’ use of that particular tactic at his weekly press conference Tuesday, echoing complaints Democrats have raised off-and-on since March.

“The Republicans continue to use the motion to recommit for political purposes, not substantive purposes. Substantive purposes would be trying to change policy. For the most part, what they do with their motions to recommit are not change policy, but try to construct difficult political votes for Members,” Hoyer said. “We understand that. To some degree, we did that as well. So it is not surprising.”

While Hoyer acknowledged that Democrats had at times employed the same approach in the past, he criticized Republicans for using the method 22 times thus far in the 110th Congress, asserting that Democrats used the tactic only four times between 1995 and 1998.

“This is a game. It is a relatively cynical game,” Hoyer added. “That doesn’t mean it is not an effective game and causes questions. So we are trying to deal with that.”

Democrats earlier had sought to alter the House rules on motions to recommit in May — an unusual step, given that the chamber’s rules are rarely reopened mid-session — but Republicans rebelled on the House floor, and Democratic leaders agreed to forgo the changes, at least temporarily.

Democratic leaders suggested in August that they planned to offer legislation on the House floor aimed at dissuading Republicans from offering contentious procedural amendments tied to such hot-button issues as immigration. At the same time, Democrats hoped to provide insulation to their own Members with a separate vote on those topics, but have yet to produce any such resolutions.

Republicans have succeeded in winning 21 motions to recommit — the majority of which would not shelve the legislation they amend — in the past 10 months, a point that President Bush praised in a Tuesday meeting at the White House with Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), according to a GOP aide.

“Republicans and Democrats alike have lived under the very same germaneness rules since 1822, and changing them won’t solve the majority’s inherent inability to govern,” Boehner spokesman Brian Kennedy said. “This isn’t a question of rules, it’s one of competence.”