Alternate Political Universe: Under Ryan, united GOP House moves swiftly on Syrian refugee bill

States pushing back amid concerns of background checks on Syrian refugees


There is probably a parallel universe somewhere, an alternate reality, sheathed in the folds of space-time -- and only explainable by Neil deGrasse Tyson -- where there was an utter meltdown in the House of Representatives on Thursday.

In this other dimension, House Republicans scheduled a vote on a bill to curb the flow of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the U.S. and bolster the existing screening process.

And then just before the vote hit, chaos ensued in this proxy scenario.

The House abruptly gaveled out of session subject to the call of the chair. Steely-faced aides spilled into the Speaker’s Lobby off the floor, phones pressed to their ears. A throng of reporters dogged House Majority Whip Rep/ Steve Scalise, R-La., as he walked briskly across Statuary Hall to the sanctum of his office, asking him about whether his party had the votes.

The Freedom Caucus bolted, doubting that the refugee measure went far enough. Moderate Republicans were on the fence, concerned they’d be portrayed as callous toward the refugees.

The House Republican Conference scheduled an emergency meeting in the Capitol basement to determine the way forward. House schedulers frantically worked the phones to rebook flights for lawmakers to mark the getaway for the Thanksgiving recess. Scribes camped in front of the Speaker’s Office by the Capitol Rotunda, hoping to interpret any signal as to whether the House would actually vote on the refugee measure.

It became commonplace for such pandemonium to grip the House when lawmakers approached a big vote on a major legislative initiative lately. The scenario has seemingly played on a loop with little deviation.

But as far as anyone could tell, was no quantum superposition or duality in the House on Thursday. No bedlam ensued in this particular reality. All was linear. Straightforward.

The House voted 289-137 to pause the refugee resettlement program and require intensified cross-checking of those who may try to come to the United States to escape the clutch of the Islamic State terror group. In fact, 47 Democrats joined nearly all Republicans to propel the bill into the rarified air of a veto-proof supermajority.

The Constitution mandates a two-thirds vote to override a veto (which President Obama threatened on this bill). With 426 members voting, the House only needed 284 yeas to attain the two-thirds threshold.

The vote was a blow to the Obama administration. Just hours before, House Democrats handed White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson their respective heads in a closed-door session at the Capitol over the administration’s approach on refugees, in light of the deadly Paris terrorism attacks.

“A lot of us went in with open minds,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., about the Thursday morning huddle with McDonough and Johnson. “But people are understandably frightened.”

Maloney ultimately voted for the bill and emerged as one of the administration’s most-vocal Democratic critics about its handling of the refugee issue.

Maloney is a moderate Democrat from a swing district in the Hudson River Valley, north of New York City. He flipped the district to Democratic control in 2012 by a narrow margin. Maloney again won re-election in 2014 -- but by fewer than 3,000 votes. He failed to score 50 percent of all ballots cast. Maloney occupies a seat in precisely the type of district in Democrats are vulnerable. Certainly Democrats want to show compassion for the refugees. But the party still faces a political hobgoblin that has plagued them for years: a perceived weakness on national security.

Republicans swiftly seized the national security ground just hours after the Paris attacks, in which 129 people died.

House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., immediately devised a battle plan to quickly move the refugee package to the floor -- even if the measure might not realistically do much to protect Americans from terrorists exploiting the refugee route.

Usually there’s internecine Republican fighting in these circumstances. This time, Democrats climbed all over each other. The ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus was line with the GOP leadership (!). And the House not only passed the bill, but hit the veto-proof bar on the vote tally.

In another time and place, Republicans may have faced divisions on this proposal. Conservatives would have groused about the GOP rushing the measure to the floor in just a couple of days without a hearing. The Freedom Caucus would have grumbled about Ryan blocking any amendments to the bill -- something he vowed he wouldn’t do as speaker. Instead, Ryan acted boldly and swiftly. Optically, Ryan paralyzed the Democrats on this issue.

Reporters asked Ryan about hastening the bill to the floor.

“Let me explain why we passed this bill in two days,” he began. “Our own law enforcement experts are telling us they don’t have confidence that they can detect or block, with the current standards in place, that ISIL or ISIS is not trying to infiltrate the refugee population. This is an urgent matter and that is why we’re dealing with this urgently.”

As for what Democrats wanted from the administration as cover to vote against the refugee bill?

“Bring a better argument,” Maloney snapped.

There are questions why this situation worked out the way it did for Republicans and not so hot for Democrats.

It’s natural to laud the new boss, Paul Ryan. But was Ryan’s approach really any different from a gambit that his predecessor -- former House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, -- may have deployed?

Put out a bill to quiet the masses (even if it’s doubtful it’s going anywhere in the Senate or can’t secure a veto-proof supermajority in that body)? Block all amendments to the bill in the Rules Committee because possible alterations could make the measure unwieldy on the floor? Advance the bill directly to the floor without hearings and markups at the subcommittee and full committee levels? These maneuvers all fly in the face of promises Ryan made to court rank-and-file Republicans.

Maybe Ryan was able to capitalize on this because he’s the new, bright shiny object on Capitol Hill -- and his surname isn’t Boehner. This isn’t a knock on Boehner. But it’s remarkable to explore the similarities of Ryan’s strategy this week to numerous legislative ploys executed by Boehner.

It will be intriguing to watch if Ryan can replicate this feat on a major, amalgamated bill that both houses of Congress must approve before December 11 to avoid a complete government shutdown.

Ryan told the restive Freedom Caucus the House would only move measures with a “majority of the majority.” That approach is now known ignominiously as the “Hastert Rule,” after convicted former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Closed-door negotiations on the spending bill are said to be going well. But approving this package will likely require Democratic support. It’s possible the refugee issue could raise its head in some form in this omnibus spending measure. And the last thing Ryan needs is a flirtation with a government shutdown.

The prism of politics might not be the best approach to examine how Ryan pulled off the refugee bill coup. Instead, the field of quantum mechanics might better explain this phenomenon.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrodinger addressed such a set of circumstances in his theoretical experiment known as “Schrodinger’s Cat.”

A cat is placed in a steel box with radioactive acid. If the acid escapes, the cat dies. But observers outside the box don’t know if the cat is alive or dead -- unaware of what happened to the acid. Therefore, Schrodinger argued that to those on the outside, the cat could be both alive and dead. This creates what Schrodinger declared a “superposition of states” sometimes called “the observer’s paradox.” The outcome isn’t clear until someone witness it.

Imagine running the refugee bill experiment with Boehner. The cat is probably dead. Poor cat. But with Ryan -- at least in this reality -- the cat thrives. We all know the outcome from Thursday because, like Schrodinger, we observed what happened.

Given the volatility of the House Republican Conference, another political universe probably exists where this all blew up for the GOP Thursday. The omnibus spending bill awaits. And it will be a challenge for Ryan to keep the House churning on this particular quantum plane and not veering into that alternative reality.