clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The arcane procedural drama that has House Democrats seething, explained

Why House Democrats are furious with each other over a successful gun control measure.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

House Democrats are quietly seething at each other behind closed doors.

After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi witnessed 26 Democrats joining Republicans on a procedural vote to amend an important universal background checks bill this week, she admonished her members during a private meeting.

“We are either a team or we’re not, and we have to make that decision,” she said.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), speaking from the Democratic left, warned about the potential political consequences. She told her colleagues they risked putting themselves on a list for progressive activists looking for primary targets.

House Democrats are fixated on presenting a unified front, as the vanguard of the anti-Trump resistance. Pelosi is noted for her ability to keep Democrats unified when she has to. She just won a standoff with President Donald Trump, keeping even more moderate members unified against his $5.7 billion demand for a border wall. Now that Congress is on to other business, the background check fight highlighted just how difficult it will be to keep Democrats — particularly new members from competitive districts — unified against Republicans.

The core of this fight is over an arcane but nevertheless important procedural maneuver called the motion to recommit, which allows the minority to force changes to a bill when it comes to the floor. Disagreement about how to vote on these motions has rattled the House Democratic conference.

According to various reports, Pelosi wants to take a harder line on procedural votes that allow Democrats to join with Republicans, but her deputies, Steny Hoyer (MD) and Jim Clyburn (SC), have wanted to give passes to members from tougher districts.

The drama shows just how difficult Pelosi’s job of keeping an ideologically diverse group of Democrats together will be. There are still growing pains for Democrats in their new role as the majority.

What the hell is a “motion to recommit,” and why is it such a big deal?

A motion to recommit is a privileged motion for the House minority — Republicans, these days — giving them an opportunity to amend a bill on the House floor when they otherwise have very little influence in the majoritarian chamber. The minority usually does offer such a motion whenever a bill comes up for a vote on the floor, but they historically almost always fail because the majority will vote the motion down.

The procedural arcana has escalated into a major story for two reasons, it seems: Republicans are being very aggressive and a little clever in the motions that they make, and green House Democrats have gotten mixed signals from leadership about how they should vote on these motions.

It’s fair to ask how much this really matters. House Democrats still overwhelmingly voted for the gun control bill’s final passage, and most Republicans still didn’t vote for the actual bill. The new provision is a footnote in the legislation and could be removed in the unlikely event that the Senate passed its own version.

Still, the universal background checks legislation was supposed to be a triumphant moment for House Democrats — an ambitious bill, on an issue they care deeply about, in which they are in sharp contrast to Republicans — but this procedural tiff ended up overshadowing it.

Republicans, as they usually do, offered a motion to recommit when the background check bill was brought to the floor. It was meant to force House Democrats to vote on whether to report undocumented immigrants to ICE if they tried to buy a firearm. More than two dozen House Democrats, almost all of them new to Congress, voted for it and the motion passed.

It had no effect on the final vote. The background check bill passed with almost every Democrat and a few Republicans supporting it. But for the Democratic left, it became an uncomfortable vote. Many on the left, like Ocasio-Cortez, want ICE to be abolished and yet, because of their colleagues’ support for the Republican motion, they had to vote for a bill that empowers the agency. And the image coming out of the vote was Republican leaders high-fiving over their sneaky victory, such as it was, and Democrats arguing on the House floor and fuming on their way out of the chamber. Not the visual Democrats were looking for.

The problem had already been simmering for weeks. Politico reported earlier this month these procedural votes were becoming a headache for Pelosi; Democrats kept losing some of their members to the Republicans on them. Democrats actually decided to support one Republican motion en masse, condemning anti-Semitism on an otherwise unrelated bill a few weeks ago, the first successful motion to recommit since 2010.

One handy chart, from Catholic University professor Matthew Green, shows the escalating problem:

Democrats are trying really hard to get it together

According to various reports and a senior Democratic aide I spoke with, the motions to recommit became an issue because Hoyer, the majority leader, and Clyburn, the majority whip, were more willing to give some leeway to members who wanted to vote with the GOP.

Here is how the Washington Post summarized the tension:

Behind the scenes, according to multiple Democratic aides, tensions have emerged between Pelosi — who views these procedural votes as something Democrats should only rarely support — and Hoyer and Clyburn, who want to give members frequent latitude to join Republicans as long as their votes do not change the final outcome.

“Mr. Hoyer believes members should vote their districts,” said Mariel Saez, a spokeswoman for Hoyer.

The senior aide said giving free passes to some members had also created resentment among other lawmakers who felt they too had difficult elections coming up.

“It’s why you should never get into this in the first place,” the aide said. “Voting with them on every [motion to recommit] is not going to keep you from getting a 30-second ad.”

Pelosi leaned on the same logic in her comments to the Democratic caucus on Thursday: “To those who think that they have to go down a certain path, understand the pressure you are putting on your colleagues.”

What have we learned from all this? We’ve learned that House Democrats are still getting on the same page and that Republicans have proven surprisingly adept at putting new Democrats on the spot with these procedural votes. We’ve learned there is some dissension within the Democratic Party on how to handle tough votes like this: Some leaders seem sympathetic to lawmakers from swing districts who want to take votes to shore up their bipartisan bona fides. Others see it as a false promise, because Republicans are going to attack Democrats anyway, no matter how they voted on a procedural motion.

It is also a reminder that this Democratic House majority might prove a little more unwieldy for leadership. Some of these members came to Washington in express opposition to the current Democratic leadership, and that puts Pelosi in a more difficult position, especially as she has signaled that, at a date to-be-determined, her time as leader will come to an end.

But she does have the ascendant left, personified by Ocasio-Cortez, on her side on this issue — particularly with the threat of primary challenges behind her. It could be that, after the recent emotional closed-door meeting, we won’t hear about tension over these procedural votes anymore. Just like it used to be.

The senior aide I spoke with said that this also could be one of the issues that the new committee to modernize Congress might look at — are these procedural machinations really worth keeping around? Republicans can revel in their tactical ingenuity, while Democrats will work to put the clamps down for good.