The Senate recently passed the long-awaited bipartisan infrastructure bill to build roads and bridges and highways across the country. The House now needs to consider it and the majority Democrats are disputing amongst themselves when it will be considered. Moderates want to vote on it immediately. Others, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, want to vote on it only after the Senate sends the House a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill advancing progressive priorities. Unless there’s some compromise, one side will have to say to the other, “It’s my way or the highway.” Though the odds are always in the Speaker’s favor, the moderate Democrats have some options at their disposal.
Over the weekend, the moderate Democrats published an op-ed in The Washington Post urging for immediate consideration of the consideration of the Senate’s infrastructure will. This comes after weeks of back and forth between the moderates and the rest of their Caucus about the timing of the legislation. Speaker Pelosi has stuck by her plan to wait until the Senate sends the House a reconciliation bill before voting on the infrastructure plan. Today the House Rules Committee met to consider a single special rule governing debate on the budget resolution (a necessary prelude to the reconciliation bill), the infrastructure bill, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
The moderates’ response to the Speaker’s strategy points to why she chose it in the first place. On one side of the Caucus, she has the moderates, who demand to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill first without linking it to the $3.5 trillion progressive bill. The progressives want the two bills linked and passed in tandem. There are enough progressives in the House that they could potentially block the infrastructure bill. What’s more, they almost need to hold the infrastructure bill hostage. Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have said a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill is a no-go, effectively dooming it in the evenly divided Senate. If the House passes the infrastructure bill immediately, they have that much less leverage to coax the moderate Senators into supporting the reconciliation package. If the progressive wing of the party gets a whiff that their $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill will go nowhere, passing the infrastructure bill could prove difficult. To move as much of President Biden’s agenda as possible, Pelosi almost has to move the legislation in the order she has outlined, despite the moderates’ concerns.
The logic of Pelosi’s timetable might be compelling from the progressives’ point of view. The moderates do not need to go along with it. The House Democrats’ three-vote majority is so slender that the moderate Democrats could spoil the Speaker’s plans if they really wanted to. Options to assert themselves effectively include voting against the special rule, voting for the special rule and then against the budget resolution, and defeating the previous question on the special rule and voting for an amended version.
To exert their influence, the most straightforward option is for the moderates to vote against either the special rule providing for consideration of the Senate infrastructure bill and the budget resolution. Or they could vote for the special rule making both in order but then vote against the budget resolution itself. Both those options block the budget resolution yet neither strategy advances their goal of passing the Senate bill straight away. Simply defeating the rule does nothing at all to expedite consideration of the infrastructure bill—and the optics of blocking immediate consideration of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would be terrible for them. Voting for the rule but opposing the budget resolution would make the infrastructure bill in order but would not stop Pelosi from simply sitting on the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the Senate has sent over a reconciliation bill. Defeating the special rule or budget resolution would send a message, may force the Speaker to develop a new strategy but it’s doubtful that she’d bend to the demand to consider the infrastructure bill immediately. The moderates would have incurred the Speaker’s wrath pointlessly.
Instead, if the moderate Democrats want the infrastructure bill to go to the President ASAP, they can defeat the previous question during the debate on the special rule. The previous question is a motion to cut off debate in the House. If it fails, control of the debate time passes from those in support of the legislation to those in opposition to it, allowing its opponents to amend it. If the moderate Democrats joined with the Republicans to defeat the previous question on the rule, they could amend the rule so that immediately upon adopting it, the House debates the Senate bill and the House votes on it, without the possibility of the Speaker deferring consideration of it. They would even leave in place the part of the resolution making in order the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Upon agreeing to the rule, the House could then proceed to consider the infrastructure bill immediately.
Defeating the previous question and amending the rule in this way would allow the moderate Democrats to vote first on the infrastructure bill as they wished. But it would be more significant than just that. First, defeating the previous question is beyond extremely rare, since it effectively turns the Floor over to the minority party for a time. The last time it happened was in the early 1980s, before Speaker Pelosi was even a Member of the House. It would be a once-in-a-career snub of the majority leadership by rank-and-file Members. The second reason it would be significant is related to the first: Defeating the previous question would allow for a more open, Member-driven legislative process. In recent years, the majority party leadership has increasingly controlled debate on the Floor through the Rules Committee. In times past, the Rules Committee would regularly report “open” rules, which would allow Members to freely offer amendments. In recent years, totally open rules have become virtually non-existent as the Rules Committee typically reports rules that restrict the amendment process in some way. If the House defeated the previous question, it could amend the special rule to allow for amendments. An open rule would allow for a much more dynamic Floor process for this bill, as any Member—even the progressives who are pushing for the $3.5 trillion bill—could bring forward their ideas for consideration. The House could work its will on everything that comes before it. An open Floor process for this bill would be a great experiment in the art of legislating and defeating the previous question could make that happen.
Defeating the previous question is admittedly unlikely. Speaker Pelosi is doubtless banking on her ability to corral and coax the moderate Democrats to support her plan and will bring the special rule to the Floor when she is confident that she has the votes. As she likes to say, “Votes are the coin of the realm.” Votes are what bring the Speaker to power; votes are what allow the Rules Committee to report restrictive rules. Votes are what will change how and when legislation will be considered and how the House operates in general. If the moderate Democrats are serious about bringing the infrastructure bill to the Floor immediately, they should take her adage as their own and vote to defeat the previous question. It’s a risky tactic, and it might be the best way—maybe the only way—for them to get the highways fixed right away.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is the research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.(Edit)