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‘Regular Order’ to Budget Conference Isn’t Quick: Wolfensberger

Don Wolfensberger, a scholar at the Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center, a Roll Call columnist and a former staff director of the House Rules Committee, follows up on our May 7 post, “Could Democrats Work Around ‘Budget Bullies’?” Here’s his analysis:

Niels’ post pointed out that while a move to go to conference on the budget resolution cannot be filibustered, there are unresolved complications about debate time and a possible lengthy sequence of votes that could rival a budget “vote-a-rama.”

The piece goes on to cite the Budget Act’s limit of one hour of debate “on any debatable motion or appeal related to the conference report (or a message between the houses),” the latter of which past parliamentary guidance suggests “would be the relevant standard” in this instance.

While that is technically correct, unfortunately it is not the stage of the process at which the Senate currently finds itself.

In rightfully calling out Republicans for past insistence on the regular order for adopting budget resolutions and going to conference, Majority Leader Harry Reid has been using a unanimous consent request to take up the House-adopted budget resolution, insist on the language of the Senate-adopted budget resolution as an amendment and authorize the appointment of conferees. Some have asked why Reid just doesn’t offer the UC language as a motion and get a roll call vote on it. Certainly that would get Republicans on record one way or another on how serious they are about the regular order.

The problem is this: What Reid is offering it is not the regular order and such a motion would not be in order. That’s because he is attempting to short-circuit the regular order under the Budget Act, which requires taking up the House budget resolution as a matter of first consideration, subject to 50 hours of debate, including the consideration of amendments. The Senate-passed language would most certainly be offered as the first amendment in the form of a substitute. But then it would be subject to further amendments, debatable for not more than two hours each. That could mean Reid filling the amendment tree to block Republican amendments for a 50-hour stall, after which amendments could still be offered but not debated — the dreaded vote-a-rama.

If and when the Senate finally completes action on the House budget resolution, it would send it back to the House as amended. The House, under the regular order, could either disagree to the Senate amendment and request a conference or concur in the Senate amendment with a further amendment, setting up a ping-pong match between the houses. It is only then that the one-hour debate limit rule kicks in for messages between the chambers (which means amendments between the chambers).

This is day 53 since the House sent its budget resolution to the Senate and the Senate adopted its own resolution and sent it to the House. House Republicans say the delay is necessary for the two bodies to pre-conference their differences and thereby avoid the prospect of endless, nonbinding motions to instruct conferees after 20 days of conference have elapsed. Senate Republicans have been countering Reid’s unanimous consent requests with proposed modifications to guarantee reconciliation instructions are not used to increase taxes or the debt limit.

The longer this drags on, the more ridiculous and hypocritical Republicans are looking over their previously avowed regular order worship. I would suggest the GOP not object to Reid’s next UC request to go to conference and in return strike an agreement for offering a motion to instruct conferees on taxes and the debt limit, with one hour of guaranteed debate time and a clean up-or-down vote (no tabling motion). Then let the House disagree to the Senate amendment and request a conference.

Anything less at this point would raise the regular odor.

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