I could hear it all the way in the Capitol Rotunda.
I didn't know what it was. All I knew is that it was loud and it was angry. And it was coming from someone about to blow a gasket nearly two football fields away in the House chamber.
The Capitol becomes a different place after dark. The lights in the massive, marble hallways are dim. The building falls eerily silent. Otherwise innocuous sounds like the squeak of rubber-soled shoes echo throughout the place.
This was well after 9 pm on a Thursday night in late July. The Capitol was largely vacant. Except for the House debating a bill to cover the health costs of 9-11 rescue workers. Many got sick after inhaling toxic fumes in the wake of the World Trade Center collapse. And when I heard what sounded like someone having a conniption in the House chamber all the way in the Rotunda, I knew something big was going down.
The shouting came from a furious Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) screeching at Rep. Pete King (R-NY). They were at loggerheads over Republican threats to vote against the 9-11 health care bill. And frankly, printing the words here doesn't come close to depicting the intensity of the verbal fisticuffs in became one of the most-nuclear exchanges ever heard on the House floor.
For his part, King called out Democrats for using a procedure that required a supermajority for the 9-11 health care bill to pass, instead of a simple majority. During his speech, King called the Democrats' tactic "a cruel hoax and a charade," a "sad moment" and accused his colleagues across the aisle of "looking for political cover."
That ignited Weiner's fuse when he took the well to speak.
"The gentleman thinks if he gets up and yells he's going to intimidate people into believing he's right, he is wrong! The gentleman is wrong!" thundered Weiner. Blood vessels in his neck bulged as he jabbed a finger in King's direction and pounded the lectern. "Don't give me the cowardly view that oh, if it was a different procedure...The gentleman will observe regular order and sit down! The gentleman will sit!"
The "different procedure" Weiner alluded to is the crux of the argument over how the House managed to defeat a bill that secured a majority of votes. The issue is only magnified because it's a 9-11 bill. The topic remains white-hot because of the ninth-anniversary of September 11th. And the House plans to bring the bill back for more debate in a few weeks.
So with the bill returning to the floor, here's a look at where it's been and why.
For starters, people have filed thousands of lawsuits about how the air near Ground Zero sickened them. Many of the ill are first responders who rushed to the scene after the towers fell. There's been an effort to get 10,000 former Ground Zero workers who developed respiratory issues to agree to a $713 million out-of-court settlement. But only police and firefighters would receive the biggest cut from this deal. So the House took up the cause. The legislation would provide medical attention for those made sick after breathing the ash and monitor their health.
The legislation costs $7.4 billion over a decade. The House now operates under what's called "PAYGO," which means it has to figure out a way to pay for what it spends. In other words, for every new program, the House must cut something, find an offset or hike taxes. To pay for the measure, this bill would have banned multinational firms that operate in tax-free havens from paying U.S. taxes when it does business here.
The bill's authors said this closed a tax loophole. But Republicans depicted this as a tax increase, fretted the measure could kill jobs and described the legislation as a new entitlement program.
Republicans criticized Democrats for the "procedure" Democrats used to bring the legislation on the floor. The procedure in question is called "suspension of the rules," often referred to in Congressional parlance as a "suspension." And it means just that. The House "suspends" the normal "rules" to expedite debate and curb any opportunity to amend the bill. In exchange for fast-tracking the legislation, the bar for passage is increased from a simple majority of 218 members to a two-thirds majority.
Suspension bills are usually reserved for non-controversial bills like congratulating collegiate sports teams or saluting community leaders. But they can also be used to pass important legislation if lawmakers think a bill carries wide enough political support. Furthermore, contrary to some GOP assertions, a suspension bill is not a "rare" parliamentary maneuver or a "trick." Suspension bills hit the House floor several times a week.
So why did Democrats roll out the 9-11 health package as a suspension?
First, leadership thought the legislation could garner the two-thirds support required. After all, it's a September 11th bill. Secondly, if the vote didn't cross the two-thirds threshold (mainly because of Republican opposition) Democrats could easily blame the GOP for voting down such a bill.
Third, Democratic insiders speculated to FOX that some moderate and conservative Democrats could have voted against the legislation had they believed the bill was going to pass. As it stood, four fiscally-conscious Democrats voted against it anyway. But that figure could have grown if the bill was handled under the "regular order," which requires a simple majority.
However, there was one factor that particularly rattled Democrats and forced them to treat the bill as a suspension.
If the House considers a bill under typical rules, the minority party is usually granted a "motion to recommit," called a MTR. The MTR is a "move" to "recommit" the bill to committee, either altering the bill or even killing it. Furthermore, MTR's must be "germane," meaning they must have something to do with the underlying issue.
In the past four years, Republicans have become very creative with their MTR's, often wielding them as a weapon against Democrats. If the GOP is clever, it can write a MTR that could force Democrats to take a tough vote and support their party at their own electoral peril.
If they brought the 9-11 health care bill to the floor under the regular order, Democrats feared Republicans could draft a MTR that may erupt into a debate about illegal immigration. For instance, the GOP could have written a MTR to bar any illegal immigrant from qualifying for 9-11 health care compensation.
You can bet that any Democrat with a competitive race this fall would be loathe to vote in favor of any federal funding for illegal immigrants.
Moreover, since the bill dealt with September 11th, Republicans could potentially draft an MTR that forces Democrats to criticize the Obama Administration's efforts to capture Osama bin Laden or even involving the proposed closure of Gitmo.
Any of these votes could make Democrats from swing districts squirm.
So instead, Democrats rolled out the bill as a suspension, mandating a two-thirds vote for passage and bereft of any chance for a Republican MTR. The final tally was 255-159, with 12 Republicans siding with the Democrats. But with 414 members voting, Democrats needed 276 yeas to pass the bill.
And that's what set off Pete King before the vote.
"Everyone knows this won't get the two-thirds majority and everyone knows that this bill would pass with a clear majority if the Democratic leadership would allow it to come to the floor under the regular procedures!" said King.
Anthony Weiner returned fire.
"You stand up an wrap yourselves around procedure!" blasted Weiner. "To say if only we had a different process, you'd vote yes. You vote in favor if you think it's the right thing. If you believe it's the wrong thing, it's a no!"
Both King and Weiner voted yes on the measure. But in an appearance the next day on FOX, Weiner excoriated King for not convincing fellow Republicans to vote yea as well.
"How's that Cracker Jack Peter King whip organization working out?" snorted Weiner.
In any event, Manhattan Reps. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), announced this week that the legislation could return to the floor soon.
"We anticipate that the bill will be taken up the second week we are back in session and will be considered under regular order, with the expectation and belief that neither side will play politics with this vitally-important legislation," the duo said in a statement.
But if the House considers the bill under the "regular order," that means it's more than likely Republicans will have an opportunity to construct a MTR.
One of the touchstones of MTR's is that they must in some way pertain to the actual legislation.
In the six weeks since the House grappled with this legislation, another radioactive, 9-11-related issue gurgled to the surface. It's a white-hot a topic. And if Republicans really want to skewer the other side, they could write a MTR that puts Democrats on the spot about the construction of the mosque near Ground Zero.
It's possible the MTR could be ruled in order, since the debate over the mosque focuses on its proximity to Ground Zero. Plus, the actual legislation deals with the health of those who worked there.
An artfully-written MTR about the mosque could make already-nervous Democrats sweat. And under the regular order, a mosque-related MTR could potentially alter or even doom the 9-11 health care bill once again.