House Republicans accomplished something major late Thursday afternoon. They governed.
Republicans have controlled the chamber since January 2011. But they’ve struggled to mine their side of the aisle for votes when it comes to big, must-pass bills to avoid government shutdowns and lift the debt ceiling.
On those occasions, Republicans leaned on Democrats to make up the difference when votes on the majority side of the aisle ran thin.
That changed Thursday when the House voted 235-193 to sidestep a government shutdown.
But the question remains, is this a new day for the House majority? Or an anomaly?
First, examine the bill itself and the parliamentary math.
The measure to keep the lights on was a “continuing resolution,” known in Washington parlance as a “CR.” So named, a CR simply “continues” the funding of government programs at current levels for a short period.
As a result, such a svelte piece of legislation doesn’t give skeptical Republicans many reasons to vote no --even if many want more money for defense, demand disaster assistance for Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and California or cannot stand that Congress isn’t approving each of the 12 federal spending bills one by one.
The vote wasn’t close: 235-193. But a deeper exploration reveals something intriguing. With 428 members casting ballots, the threshold for passage was 215 yeas. Eighteen Republicans wound up voting no. Zero Democrats voted on the plan until the vote was almost closed. When it appeared the plan would pass with just Republican support, 14 Democratic ayes suddenly appeared on the tally board in the House chamber.
At the time of the vote, the House membership stood at 433 members and 240 Republicans (more on that in a moment). That meant the bar for passage was 217 yeas. The GOP could only lose 22 of their own before needing Democratic help. What’s 235 minus 18? 217. Republicans rested right on the cusp. The Republican leadership wrangled precisely the number of GOP votes it needed to pass the bill alone. No more. No less. That’s why Democrats sat on their hands until it was clear the bill would pass without Democratic assistance.
Voting against a shutdown and in favor of funding government operations was a good decision for those Democrats who did cast yea ballots. Reps. Cheri Bustos, Illinois, Stephanie Murphy, Florida, Tom O’Halleran, Arizona, and Collin Peterson, Minnesota, are all moderates and represent districts that could be in play in 2018.
But they didn’t want to vote yes if Republicans couldn’t haul the freight on their own and the bill failed. If the measure went down to defeat, Republicans would hoist themselves by their own petard.
“I think this is fairly a non-event, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said before the vote. “They either have the votes or they don't have the votes today.”
Pelosi may have be right. The CR vote was a non-event. That’s because Thursday’s roll call vote elevates the next campaign to fund the government by December 22 to the main event.
A better touchstone by which to measure the plight of House Republicans came in a seemingly routine vote earlier in the week to initiate a conference committee on the tax bill.
The House wasn’t scheduled to meet last Monday. But the chamber’s majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., summoned members back to Washington for an evening vote to “go to conference” and start the process of fusing the House tax bill with the Senate tax plan.
The House Freedom Caucus huddled last Monday before the roll call. And when the vote hit, many of its members refused to vote or elected instead to cast nay ballots. The gambit could have potentially stalled tax reform -- or, at the very least, deeply embarrassed the Republican leadership.
Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., spoke with President Trump just as the conference committee vote started and got on the horn with an absent House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Meantime, the yeas and nays tied on the seemingly ordinary motion to go to conference at 200-200. The count deadlocked again at 201-201, then listed to 201-202. GOP no votes ballooned as high as 20 at one point as the leadership started to sweat. Meadows, Reps. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and others engaged in animated conversations on the House floor with a fuming McCarthy and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. Finally, members of the Freedom Caucus relented and voted yes. The
House adopted the motion to start a conference committee with the Senate after only a handful of GOP defections.
Yours truly asked McHenry how a rote roll call vote metamorphosed into a political hostage situation.
“Don't you know there is nothing rote about anything that happens in this building?” replied a seething McHenry.
Shortly after the vote closed, Trump then promptly placed a second call to Meadows as he returned to Washington from Utah aboard Air Force One.
The 40-plus member Freedom Caucus demanded a December 30 expiration date for the next interim spending bill and a separate measure to address defense spending.
“Deadlines right before Christmas do generally not bode well,” Meadows argued.
“When you have that backstop before Christmas, bad things happen,” said Freedom Caucus leader Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa.
Freedom Caucus members feared Republican leaders would use the December 22 deadline just before Christmas as an excuse to advance a plan they didn’t like. It would be the only stagecoach leaving the Capitol. Either get on board or get left behind. Who knows what lawmakers might attach to that package. A DACA fix? Cost sharing arrangement for health care? Disaster funding without budgetary offsets?
The caucus plan would mean Congress would meet during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, blowtorching the recess where lawmakers and aides spend time with friends and family.
“Oh, boo hoo. We’re supposed to be here working,” snarled Perry, not quite channeling Thurl Ravenscroft and “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch.”
The caucus left the Capitol on Monday night with an agreement from the speaker. Meadows said Ryan would at least entertain the December 30 deadline to fund the government rather than December 22.
But Christmas is Christmas. Republican leaders refused to cave to the Freedom Caucus demands for now.
“I don’t think that’s the best way to go forward,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “My preference would be two weeks.”
Members of the Freedom Caucus huddled with Ryan on Tuesday but left dejected.
“That’s not where the majority of the conference is right now,” conceded Meadows about the December 30 target.
So, the Thursday interim spending bill was the easy part. Now things get harder as the Republican brass tries to figure out what to do after December 22. Ominously, that date could tee up a government shutdown before or even over Christmas, thus facilitating Congress to meet over the holidays for the first time since December 2012-January 2013.
Consider the vote margin now. And this is why the parliamentary math always matters on Capitol Hill.
Former Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., was one of the yea votes Thursday on the stopgap bill. He’s now resigned amid reports he offered to pay aides $5 million to sleep with him and serve as a surrogate mother for his children.
That means the House has 432 members and 239 Republicans, with 217 the current number to pass legislation in the House if all members vote. One of the GOP yeas on the Thursday spending bill is now gone. Democrats are crowing about a DACA fix. Does the GOP leadership feel it has to lift the debt ceiling now or can that onerous chore wait?
Bipartisan members from Florida and Texas are insisting disaster relief be attached to the next spending bill. Many lawmakers simply won’t vote for another CR.
Pelosi has demonstrated her side will stand as strong as the Pontiac Silverdome if necessary -- only releasing potentially vulnerable members to vote their conscience when a bill is finally destined for passage.
The next vote to avoid a government shutdown could be right on the edge. And we haven’t even discussed the potential scenario where additional lawmakers of both parties could be forced to resign due to sexual harassment allegations.
Three quit just last week. The sexual harassment story is far from done. That could throw the vote counts to avoid a government shutdown -- to say nothing of tax reform -- into a tizzy.
“Republicans take great glory in being the majority party. With that comes responsibility,” mused House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
And if Republicans can’t do it by themselves, Democrats are warming up in the bullpen.
“You can’t cobble together 218 votes from your 240? Fine. Ready to help,” chirped Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., before Franks resigned. “If you need help with Democrats, it can’t be a Republican budget. It has to include values. Including a clean DREAM Act.”
And so House Republicans proved Thursday night they could in fact govern by themselves -- for the moment. They are the majority party and they provided enough votes on their own to avoid a government shutdown.
But that may have been nothing. December 22 will be the main event.