Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was bringing the Senate back on Friday for a brief legislative session. Here's some background on why, and what happens after Friday:
The move will break a nearly interminable, five-week congressional recess a few days early. Neither the Senate nor House has conducted any legislative business nor opened the doors to their respective chambers since early last month. Both bodies were long scheduled to return to action next Monday at 2 p.m. ET.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee raced on Wednesday to forge an agreement on a revised resolution which would assent to the president's plan to hit Syria. A markup session by the panel produced the reconfigured resolution on a vote of 10-7 with one member voting "present."
But despite the machinations and a lengthy, classified debate Wednesday morning which delayed the markup session, the Foreign Relations Committee successfully authored a Syria resolution and aimed to send it the floor.
Which it could do ... if the Senate floor were open for business.
An eloquent, impassioned debate about Syria won't unfold on the Senate floor Friday. Fewer than a handful of senators are likely to be on hand. The entire session may only last a few moments. All observers may see on the Senate floor is a clerical transaction. But it's a very important one.
The Senate usually can't just file legislation on the floor and get to it right away. After all, this is the Senate. Under most circumstances, at least one day must pass. So, Reid will order the Senate into an abbreviated session on Friday to "receive" the Syria resolution from the Foreign Relations Committee. Reid will then let the weekend pass and begin in earnest on Monday -- the day the Senate was supposed to come back to session in the first place.
What does this get Reid and supporters of congressional authorization? It ever-so-slightly swells the calendar so the Senate can move as expeditiously as possible (without that being an oxymoron) to get the Syria resolution on the floor, debate it, pass it and possibly bat it over to the House of Representatives.
With the Syria resolution filed on the Senate floor Friday, Reid can actually launch the legislative process on Monday. At some point on Monday, Reid would prospectively ask unanimous consent that the Senate move to the Syria resolution. It's more than likely that a senator will object, thus stalling the request. The Senate conducts much of its business by unanimous consent (or "UC," in Senate jargon). But Senate rules often favor the minority. In other words, even if 99 senators wanted to start debate on the Syria resolution and one objected, the Senate wouldn't have obtained "unanimous consent." So the Senate would be stuck.
For a bit, at least.
There's an avenue out of this parliamentary cul-de-sac. It's called "invoking cloture." Doing that means the Senate can short-circuit a filibuster, even if someone is gumming up the works simply by objecting. So if there's an objection on Monday, the Senate is cemented on what's called the "motion to proceed." The Senate can't formally move to the Syria resolution. But Reid can counter with a "cloture petition." A cloture petition is a way to end the delaying tactic. If the Senate secures 60 votes to "invoke cloture," it can stop the objection or filibuster and move ahead.
But not right away.
Reid may file his cloture petition on the "motion to proceed" to the Syria resolution on Monday. If the Senate hadn't started the process Friday, Reid may have to wait until Tuesday instead. But the Senate can't consider that petition right away. Why? Well, the Senate's the Senate. Cloture petitions essentially require an intervening day before they "ripen" and are available for a vote. So if Reid files a cloture petition to vault the filibuster on the motion to proceed on Monday, the Senate can't vote on it until Wednesday, Sept. 11. And even on Wednesday, the Senate will require 60 yea votes to stymie the filibuster.
So once (and if) the Senate secures 60 votes on Wednesday is the Syria resolution up for debate? Possibly. But not for sure. Senate rules allow 30 hours of debate after a successful cloture petition. It's customary that opponents of a cloture petition yield back most or all of that time - but not always.
In other words, if the Senate invokes cloture on the motion to proceed to the Syria resolution on Wednesday the 11th and opponents of the authorization insist on burning off all 30 hours available to them, then the Senate can't start the Syria debate until Thursday, Sept. 12. And even then, it's not without one more vote: the actual motion to proceed to the resolution, which only requires a simple majority.
Of course, no one knows how much time senators may demand to debate the Syria resolution. One may suspect it would be a lot -- considering the anxiety lawmakers are expressing about this decision. The Syria debate could take the balance of next week or even propel the conversation into the week of Sept. 15. Keep in mind that the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, begins at sundown on Friday, Sept. 13 and lasts until Saturday, Sept. 14. Many Jewish lawmakers won't be around to debate and vote.
And it's entirely possible the Senate may need to run through another cloture petition just to end the debate on the actual resolution itself and advance to a final vote.
This could take a while.
What does this mean for the House of Representatives?
Well, a lot. There's no concrete plan for the House to consider anything on Syria yet, even though the president secured a promise from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to do so last week. Congressional sources say it's entirely possible the House could debate precisely the authorization framed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Finding the votes to pass anything in the House is proving to be a monumental struggle despite the support of Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. For the second time in as many days Wednesday, Pelosi sent around a "Dear Colleague" letter to House Democrats seeking input on what a Syria resolution might look like. Pelosi's request was an effort to find a plan around which lawmakers might coalesce. Earlier in the week, Boehner's office published a statement saying the White House should "take the lead on any whipping effort" to unearth yes votes.
In short, the House needs time. And since no one thinks the votes are there in the House, the House may as well sit back and wait for the Senate to act. Plus, early Senate action could help build yea votes in the House. Some House members are more inclined to vote yes if the other body approves something. Secondly, yea votes by a home state senator (or better yet, both senators) could provide "air cover" for flummoxed House members to vote yes on a Syria authorization. And even though Boehner and the president agreed to consider a Syria resolution in the House, would the House even bother to act if the vote total were so paltry ... thus putting those who support the resolution in the crosshairs ... if the Senate can't pass something?
So the Senate meets unexpectedly on Friday just to tee up all of this. It's the first gambit in what could prove to be a unique game of chess unfolding at the Capitol over Syria.