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‘The chair cannot answer that’ — confusion grips the Senate floor

A fairly routine unanimous consent request got confusing after one senator ran late

Sen. John Kennedy, (R-LA), asks a question during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on May 5, 2020. On Tuesday Kennedy was part of a unanimous consent request that had a lot of senators asking questions.
Sen. John Kennedy, (R-LA), asks a question during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on May 5, 2020. On Tuesday Kennedy was part of a unanimous consent request that had a lot of senators asking questions. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post, Pool)

Confusion reigned Tuesday afternoon when the Senate agreed to a unanimous consent request from Sen. Rand Paul to call up and pass a bill he introduced earlier in the day — even as other senators weren’t quite sure what exactly passed.

The Kentucky Republican called up a bill that would require the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Treasury to exchange data in an effort to reclaim coronavirus aid money sent to dead people — and stop similar future payments from happening.

[‘Mr. Akaka . . .’ returns — again]

A Government Accountability Office report last week revealed nearly $1.4 billion in tax rebate checks were sent to 1.1 million dead people as part of coronavirus relief efforts.

Many UCs, as they are referred to in shorthand, are procedural moves sometimes done in the middle of a Senate session to draw attention to an issue, and are typically followed by an objection from one of the other senators.

However, instead of an objection — Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., had planned to object and he was on his way to the floor to do so, he said later — Sens. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., and John Kennedy, R-La., spoke in support of the measure, and no one was there to object.

So when the presiding officer asked the senators if anyone would object to the motion that was still pending, there was just Paul.

“I’m asking are there any objections; if there’s no objections, then I guess it passes,” Paul said.

Then, confusion.

As part of Paul’s UC, he asked his proposal be combined with legislation based on a proposal from Carper and Kennedy that was previously advanced by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

But did the bills get combined? The senators wondered. It turns out they did, but it all happened fast.

“Both of them passed,” Paul could be heard on a hot mic.

“No, they didn’t,” Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, which oversees agencies including the IRS, could be heard saying.

“Yes they did,” Paul said.

Then Wyden asked if the legislation he planned to object to passed, and was informed it did.

The Finance Committee’s ranking member expressed concerns the bill would take a “flawed” approach because the measure would put more responsibilities on the Social Security Administration without providing it more funding to support it to do so. He also noted he was on his way to offer to work with Carper and Kennedy.

“But apparently it was so important that I couldn’t come over here and make that offer, and I think the Senate will regret this,” he said.

Kennedy, who said he’d be willing to work with Wyden on his concerns, then asked for clarity on what, exactly, had passed in the first place — it was still in dispute.

“Was that Senator Paul’s bill?” Kennedy asked, getting a “yes” from the presiding officer, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.

And was it “combined with Senator Carper’s bill and my bill?” Kennedy asked.

“To be honest, the chair cannot answer that,” Boozman said.

Kennedy, who explained he had only found out “five minutes ago” there was an objection from a senator who could not be available. And “that’s why we proceeded.”

The Louisiana Republican then said he would be “willing to unproceed to work with [Wyden] and anybody else who wants to improve this bill.”

Afterward, Paul, Kennedy and Carper all sent out statements lauding passage of their respective bills.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this story.

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