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Republicans Eye Rules Changes as Possible Conference Unifier

Messer, R-Ind., participates in the press conference announcing House GOP leadership for upcoming session of Congress on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Messer co-hosted a meeting to discuss possible House GOP rules changes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina wants leadership candidates to confess to their “misdeeds” before they can be elected by their peers. Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky wants to dilute the speaker’s power of the Republican Steering Committee.

Rep. James B. Renacci of Ohio wants leadership to prioritize floor votes on bills that have the support of a majority of members, not just the measures leaders like best. And Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia wants anyone running for elected leadership to give up whatever elected leadership positions they currently hold.

These are just some of the dozens of changes rank-and-file members of the House Republican Conference want to see addressed in the weeks and months ahead.

More than 100 lawmakers huddled in Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodger’s office in the Cannon building Wednesday afternoon to start what is sure to be a complex and cumbersome task of overhauling the House Republican rulebook.

Advocates of the effort say it could be the only way to heal a fractured conference in the wake of Speaker John A. Boehner’s resignation, with many members arguing that a new leadership slate isn’t a panacea — or at least not the only one.

“I think this is one of those unique moments where empowering individual members will help the new speaker do his job better,” said Republican Policy Committee Chairman Luke Messer of Indiana, who co-led the meeting with McMorris Rodgers. “It’s important we start this process during the leadership elections so it can be a part of the discussion.

“A host of folks have talked about the need to open up the process, there’s been a lot of talk about following regular order,” Messer continued, “and what we’re trying to do is build consensus around what that means.”

“Anything we do has to make it possible for the leadership to be able to lead the group and I think that’s the most important thing — it’s about members’ initiatives, it’s about getting members’ legislation on the floor, even if it’s voted down,” said Renacci, who with Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, circulated a letter addressed to McMorris Rodgers requesting a chance to discuss rules changes. “That’s the most important thing that has to come out of this.”

An aide with the House Republican Conference told CQ Roll Call McMorris Rodgers and Messer would be discussing next steps over the Columbus Day recess and into the following week, when members return to Capitol Hill.

Conversations are ongoing as to how formal recommendations would be brought to the full conference for a vote, and whether a more structured working group on changing the rules would be convened to tackle the endeavor, as opposed to the crowd-sourced exercise of Wednesday afternoon.

Messer and McMorris Rodgers want to move the process forward quickly. It may not realistically be possible to complete that work in time for the House floor for speaker on Oct. 29, but lawmakers see the value in putting forth a good-faith effort to produce results sooner than later.

The need to show a seriousness of purpose was underscored by the open skepticism of members prior to the meeting.

“It’s been called a ‘members meeting’, so assume they’re going to rule every motion out of order and it’s not being held in a room that’s big enough to hold a quorum,” Massie complained on Tuesday night. “So, you know, I’m gonna go to that meeting with an open mind but with the understanding this may just be a meeting to … placate the desire to change the rules.”

Westmoreland was similarly unenthusiastic in advance of the gathering, which he said was being called to address “whatever.”

“They’re talking now about whether there’s going to even be any rules changes because they need to be studied,” he said.

Westmoreland and Massie both attended the meeting on Wednesday, according to a source in the room.

Many of the proposed rules changes touch on sensitive topics. Some House Republicans, such as Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes of California, are livid with conservatives for pressuring Boehner to resign before he was ready and want the conference to adopt rules to punish dissenters for voting against procedural floor votes, or even the conference’s nomination for speaker.

Members were perplexed by Jones’ proposal that members admit to prior misconduct — such as driving under the influence or having an extramarital affair — as a condition of being elected to a House GOP leadership position.

“You know, I think it’s up to each person who puts their name forward to do it with integrity, and so having everybody purge themselves of any potential wrongdoing I think would be a tough thing to ask people to do,” said Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, one of Boehner’s biggest critics.

Jones said he wasn’t alluding to any particular member or episode in suggesting his rules change, only that he still regrets the circumstances surrounding former Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., who was poised to be the next speaker in 1998 but had to resign suddenly amid revelations of an affair.

“It almost destroyed our conference,” Jones told reporters Wednesday morning. “I don’t want to see my party become the minority party by not saying that integrity is important.”

It also might take some work to convince hard-line conservatives who desire a more open process on the House floor — with unlimited amendments to bills, for instance — that the answer might not reasonably be the dissolution of the House Rules Committee, which sets parameters for floor debate.

On Wednesday night, Rules Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas, who is running for majority whip should the position become open in the larger leadership shuffle, told reporters if they had questions about how his panel operates, they should come talk to him.

“You have to attach rules to things so that you have procedures. Rules are there for procedures — to put in place what we do, how we do it, how you talk about the jurisdictional elements,” Sessions said. “What a lot of people don’t understand is there are first-, second-, third-degree type jurisdictions, and every committee really marks up; it’s not uncommon for every committee to have their own sections or piece, and the Rules Committee is there to protect the language that is there.

“We are not there to inhibit people,” Sessions continued, “We’re there to protect the bills that go through.”


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