Thursday, September 17, 2009

More Griping About Reporters: Congressional Procedure

Elise Foley over at TNR, posting in both the Plank and Treatment blogs, had the good sense to think that many people might be wondering exactly what procedures get us from five committee bills to floor consideration of single bills. And she had the good sense to consult Norm Ornstein, who certainly knows House and Senate procedures. And the story gets off to an excellent start.

...and then goes horribly wrong at the end:
Finally, the combined Senate legislation will be sent to the Rules committee, which will receive strict instructions from the leadership about what terms of debate to set for the bill. It could remain open for debate and amendment, or it could require simple up-or-down vote, depending on what the Senate leaders think will work best.
Oops! That ain't right. Perhaps a little remedial how-a-bill-becomes-a-law, updated version, is in order.

The House bill will go to the House rules committee: substitute House for Senate in that paragraph, and it's a good summary of how a bill gets to the House floor. Over on the Senate side, what will probably happen is a filibuster on a motion to proceed, requiring sixty votes to get the bill taken up at all. Then, either there will be a unanimous consent agreement governing which amendments can be offered (unlikely, although there may be a partial UCA to get through some of the amendments offered); or, anyone can offer any amendment they like (with filibusters available on each amendment); or, Reid will move for cloture on the bill. More or less; the specifics get technical, and I for one have to look it up when it comes to specific questions.

Over on the House side, the only thing seriously limiting the leadership from dictating procedures through the rules committee is that Democrats need to make sure they have a majority in favor of the rule -- for example, liberals could threaten to vote against the rule if they are not given a chance to vote on a single-payer alternative. This could get tricky, since carefully negotiated compromises could be endangered if amendments pass on the floor, but usually the majority party leadership on the House side has enough weapons that they can enforce party discipline when they want to. Individual Members of the House have pretty much zilch power, but blocs big enough to threaten to sink the bill (or the rule) might be able to get something.

On the Senate side, on the other hand, you're basically talking about negotiations with everyone, certainly everyone who might vote for the bill, over everything. Every Senator always has plenty of power to mess things up, but the numbers right now make it clear that every Democratic Senator (and Olympia Snowe) is in a very good bargaining position.

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