In order for a bill to be presented to the President for signature, it must pass both the House and Senate in the exact same form. The device used for reaching agreement between the two Houses is often, but not always, a conference committee. Sometimes differences between the two bodies are resolved by amendment — e.g., the House will agree to the bill as passed by the Senate with an amendment and the Senate will subsequently concur with that amendment.
A bill may be sent to conference by special rule or unanimous consent. If an objection is heard, the bill may be sent to conference by motion or suspension. A motion to request or agree to a conference with the Senate is in order if offered by direction of the primary committee and of all reporting committees of initial referral. If such a motion has not been authorized by the committee, a special rule may be required to go to conference. The 109th rules of the House included a change that gave committees the option to adopt a rule directing the Chair of the committee to offer a privileged motion to go to conference at any time the Chair deems it appropriate during a Congress.
Following the motion to go to conference, but prior to the appointment of conferees, the Speaker will recognize a Minority Member, with preference given to the Minority Floor manager (if recognition is sought) to offer a motion to instruct House conferees. The motion is debatable for one hour, divided between the Majority and the Minority managers. If both support the motion, however, a third Member may demand time in opposition. All three Members are then recognized for one-third of the time. The motion to instruct conferees is not amendable unless the previous question is defeated. The instructions are not binding and they may not propose to do what the conferees could not otherwise do under the rules of the House (e.g., exceed the scope of the conference). Additional opportunities to instruct occur when a conference report is recommitted or after 45 calendar days and 25 legislative days if the conference has failed to report. A Member who wishes to offer a motion to instruct conferees after 45 and 25 days must notify the House one day in advance of offering the motion.
Conferees are named by the Speaker and usually include members of the committee(s) of jurisdiction and principal proponents of the legislation’s major provisions.
When a conference agreement is reached, it comes back to the House in the form of a “conference report” that the House must consider and approve. Unless waived, the rules of the House require that a conference report be filed at least 72 hours before it can be called up for consideration. The rules also require that a majority of the conferees sign the conference report. After that time, it becomes privileged and can be called up at any time. If the conference report violates a rule of the House, it may be subject to a point of order that would prevent its consideration.
Debate on a conference report is limited to one hour, the time divided between the Majority and the Minority, unless the Majority manager and the Minority manager both support the conference report. In that case, one-third of the debate time will be given to an opponent of the conference report who makes such a demand.
Before adoption of the conference report, a motion may be in order to recommit the conference report to the committee on conference, either with instructions (that must be within the authority of the conferees and comply with the rules of the House) or without instructions, although separate debate time is not allowed on either motion. Such a motion is only in order if the Senate has not yet acted on the conference report, thereby discharging its conferees, and the instructions in the motion to recommit are not binding because the House cannot bind Senate conferees. A Member qualifies to offer the motion if he or she opposes the conference report and states that fact.
If the House is first to act and the motion to recommit is adopted, the conference must meet again and a new conference report must be filed prior to consideration of the measure again. The rule requiring a three-day layover of conference reports still applies unless waived by special rule.
Following debate on the conference report and in the absence of a motion to recommit or upon the defeat of such a motion, a vote then occurs on adoption of the conference report, which may not be amended on the Floor.
When dealing with appropriations conference reports, there may be times when conferees cannot reach agreement on all the amendments in disagreement. Also, there may be times when conferees must report provisions outside the conference report. For example, conferees may not exceed the scope of the conference or include legislative or unauthorized provisions in an appropriations bill. In those cases, the conferees will present a conference report to the House and Senate that includes all amendments on which agreement has been reached but excludes the amendments that remain in real or technical disagreement. The conference report is considered first and, assuming adoption of the conference report, the amendments in disagreement are then considered and disposed of individually.