As House Republicans’ second in command, Steve Scalise, R-La., had regular opportunities last Congress to ask about — or criticize — Democrats’ upcoming agenda during end-of-week colloquies on the floor. Now, with Republicans in power, the shoe’s on the other foot, and Scalise will spend colloquies on the receiving end of questions from newly minted Minority Whip Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass.
The colloquy is a House tradition in which the minority whip engages the majority leader in a dialogue on the floor to preview the upcoming week’s legislative schedule, generally occurring after the final House votes of a week. Colloquies don’t often stay focused on the schedule for long, though, as the two parties’ seconds-in-command exchange snipes and delve into a wide range of timely policy issues.
Amid concerns raised over border control and law enforcement legislation by members of their own party, five of the Republicans’ 11 “ready to go bills” slated for the first two weeks of the Congress have yet to receive floor action five weeks after the start of the 118th Congress.
This week, for example, the House took up several quick measures under two different rules to reflect partisan priorities and messaging — a slew of bills to reverse the Biden administration’s coronavirus emergency declarations and policies, which are presumed dead on arrival in the Senate, along with a resolution to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., from the Foreign Affairs Committee and another denouncing socialism.
Between the extended speakership battle, Republicans’ struggles to get some of their planned bills to the floor, and presiding over the first open amendment process in nearly seven years, the House floor schedule has been difficult to predict.
Against this backdrop, the traditional opportunity for the minority to ask the majority about the schedule felt especially apt.
Thursday afternoon, Scalise announced that the House will consider three measures under rule next week — a bill to terminate an April 2022 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for foreign travelers entering the country and two joint resolutions regarding actions of the District of Columbia Council.
One resolution would reverse the council’s decision to allow undocumented immigrants to vote in citywide elections, while the other would disapprove of its decision to reduce maximum penalties and eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, a decision that Scalise called “radical.”
The House will also consider several measures under suspension of the rules, an expedited process used to move noncontroversial legislation through the chamber.
The two council measures on next week’s schedule touch on hot-button issues of immigration and crime, two issues Republicans have struggled to tick off their initial to-do list for the Congress.
Clark was quick to express her “dismay” at the schedule, which she said had a “very local flavor to it.” She said the Republican majority’s schedule thus far has been filled with “hollow, symbolic stunts” and mentioned a CNN poll, published earlier this week, that found that 73 percent of Americans believe Republicans haven’t been focused on the country’s most important problems, asking what Scalise would say to those Americans.
“Thank you for giving the Republicans the House majority,” Scalise retorted.
He highlighted bipartisan support for measures including a bill to prohibit the export of products from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to China, which the House passed, 331-97, on Jan. 12, and a concurrent resolution denouncing socialism, which the House agreed to earlier in the day, 328-86.
“There’s more to come,” he added, emphasizing ongoing Republican efforts to move legislation to address their priorities on energy and immigration policy — two areas on which his party repeatedly criticized Democrats throughout the last Congress.
“I am hearing the exact same rhetoric, the exact same political posturing that I’ve heard for the last month,” Clark said. “We can vote on sham bills. We can look at what the D.C. city council is doing. That is up to the majority to set that agenda. [Democrats’] agenda is going to remain on lowering costs for Americans.”
“We’re addressing the needs of those families who are struggling,” Scalise said of Republicans’ agenda. He said while some of the issues targeted by House-passed legislation have been bipartisan and others haven’t, “we’re going to continue to address them because they’re bipartisan issues for America, even if they’re not bipartisan in this chamber.”
Hostage-taking or adult conversations?
Prior to the colloquy, Clark spoke positively about her relationship with Scalise, noting that he has been “accessible and helpful,” especially now that she has moved into his old office.
On the floor, the leaders’ tone remained cordial, but their words were less friendly, as they delved into party-line messaging and exchanged harsh criticisms of the other party’s agenda.
The two concluded their colloquy with a discussion of the debt ceiling. Scalise signaled openness to a bipartisan solution on the debt limit, even echoing a point often made by Democrats — that previous congresses and presidents of different parties have historically worked together to address the issue.
“I think we can get to an agreement where both sides come together and say this is a problem we need to tackle together,” he said. “I think most Americans have been hungry for us here in Washington to have the same adult conversation that they’ve been having at their kitchen tables for years.”
However, Scalise closely tied the debt limit conversation to calls to rein in government spending, saying “the debt ceiling is a symptom of Washington’s spending problem” and blaming Democrats for “maxing out the nation’s credit card.”
Clark meanwhile criticized Republicans’ stance on the debt ceiling as “a case of hostage-taking” and rejected their attempts to tie the two issues. She mentioned the debt accumulated under the Trump administration, which she attributed to “tax giveaways for our largest corporations and the wealthy, because that’s who [Republicans] work for, the rich, the very rich and the super rich.”
Scalise has been participating in weekly colloquies since the start of the 116th Congress in 2019, when Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., became minority leader and Scalise became minority whip. After four years sharing the floor with then-Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., Scalise has a new sparring partner in Clark, since Hoyer chose not to seek a leadership position for the 118th Congress.
During the last colloquy of the 117th, Hoyer — who participated in colloquies for two decades and made the jump between minority whip and majority leader twice himself — offered his best wishes for Scalise stepping into the new role, assuring him, “Being majority leader is a lot better.”
Clark has taken over as Democrats’ minority whip after serving as assistant speaker in the 117th Congress. Clark will be the first woman to regularly participate in colloquies since then-Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., during the 107th Congress.
In an interview prior to Thursday’s conversation with Scalise, Clark noted that she’s “been a fan of the colloquy for some time.” She noted the importance of the colloquy to “press deeper on what the majority’s agenda is” and said that “regardless of what they bring up in the schedule, our mission is to prioritize the needs of working families and to deliver on the most pressing challenges facing families.”
While the Republican leadership between the 117th and 118th Congresses was largely unchanged, the Democratic leadership team is full of new faces, which may be reflected in their approach to colloquies. Clark shared that she hopes to cultivate a wider group of Democrats to take on the responsibility and represent their party in the weekly tradition.
“As this process moves forward, we are also going to bring in other voices from our caucus” to weekly colloquies “because we have such a wealth of expertise and diversity, and we want those voices heard in this process, too,” she said.
At the end of Thursday’s colloquy, Scalise and Clark resumed the staged collegiality for which colloquies have been known, with both looking forward to the State of the Union address next week. Clark mentioned that she’s “look[ing] forward to many more conversations to come,” and Scalise added that he “enjoyed the first of our many colloquies.”