A Galactic Spending Bill
In the final scene of the 1997 classic "Men in Black," the camera rapidly withdraws from a scene on a bustling Manhattan street, past the clouds and to outer space. It eventually reveals the Milky Way galaxy, suspended inside a marble held by an alien. The last shot of the movie shows the alien also has in his possession additional marbles that contain other galaxies as well.
In other words, the galaxy seems very big to mere mortals. But to some, the galaxy is merely a small piece of a much larger game.
There's a lot of talk on Capitol Hill the past few days about just "how big the galaxy is." No, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones aren't stalking the halls of Congress warning that an Arquillian battle cruiser or Corollian death ray is about to wipe out the planet. But figuring out "how big the galaxy is" is critical to finishing a bill to run the federal government through September and simultaneously shave $100 billion in spending.
In this case, the "galaxy" is just how many more amendments are in the mix and how much time might be needed to debate them all. Once the House establishes the size of the legislative "galaxy," then everyone has a handle of when they might be able to conclude this crucial piece of legislation.
Guidance from the office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) says it "hopes" to complete the bill Friday.
Rarely is it so tough for the House to define the parameters of its "galaxy." When considering most pieces of legislation, the House crafts what's called a rule to govern floor action. The rule works as the blueprint, laying out precisely what amendments are in order and how much time is allocated for debate.
Amendments are frequently limited and debate could be curbed to as little as an hour.
Until the House got to this bill to fund the government...
Republicans are intent to show that they're running the House differently than the Democrats. When he assumed the gavel, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) promised a more open and transparent process.
Many Democrats question whether the House is truly that more open than it used to be.
"Transparence and openness is a wonderful process. At some point, they'll start to follow it," scoffed House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) of the GOP claims.
But House Republicans contend that its unprecedented to bring a temporary spending measure to the floor in this fashion. What's different? Well, for one, Republicans allowed lawmakers from both parties to file hundreds of amendments in an effort to either deepen spending cuts or restore money for certain programs. Secondly, the GOP didn't padlock the time for debate, only setting an exit goal of 3 pm on Thursday.
That means that any lawmaker could come to the floor and speak about any amendment for five minutes a pop. Of course not all lawmakers care to address every amendment. Nor do they want to consume all of their time. And many lawmakers rescinded their amendments after discovering they were duplicative.
So the House started debate on the bill on Tuesday with a Big Bang. From that point forward, lawmakers debated amendments or sought their five minutes each on the floor, per topic, expanding the parliamentary galaxy.
That resulted in Tuesday's session finally finishing at 1:13 am Wednesday. And Wednesday's session bleeding until the onerous hour of 3:43 am Thursday.
That brings us to now. And which is why after three days of hearty debate, Congressional aides and lawmakers are trying to forge some sort of deal to set a time agreement and potentially toss out other amendments. Only then will people finally know the size of the galaxy.
But for these purposes, maybe it isn't a galaxy, but a universe. And an expanding universe at that.
One senior aide indicated Thursday afternoon it would take a full day to slice through all of the Republican amendments alone and then at least ten hours to grapple with the Democratic amendments. The aide said that efforts by Congressional leaders to reduce some of the amendments weren't "going so well."
And the longer the debate raged, one source proffered that it became clearer that the managers of the legislation, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) and the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), were willing to let the process simply unfold, regardless of sleep deprivation.
"We're gonna be here for a looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong time," responded one senior House Republican aide via email after I asked when the House might finish.
That's 59 "o's" in "long." Almost as many "o's" as zeroes in some of the trillion-dollar deficit figures they've been batting around. And in Congress-speak, some speculated that "looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong" could mean Saturday.
Which brings us to the United States Senate.
For years, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) often threatened Saturday sessions to coax intransigent lawmakers to carve a deal and finish a bill before the end of the week. And over the years, Reid has gaveled-in many a Saturday session.
But no one truly knows how much time this could consume.
"It's just an issue of volume," said one aide.
Sustenance is important for late night sessions. On Wednesday night, interns and staffers wheeled in multiple dollies loaded with dozens of cartons of takeout from Buca Dibeppo to feed irritable lawmakers.
On Thursday night, the Democrats' laid out an Asian spread in Steny Hoyer's conference room. Lawmakers could choose from 11 different dishes, ranging from General Tso's chicken to vegetable spring rolls.
Meantime, in the Speaker's Lobby, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) threw not one but two logs on a fire smoldering in a fireplace at the rear of the room before joining a chat with Reps. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) and William Lacy Clay (D-MO). Perhaps it was only appropriate for Cleaver to toss that kindling on the fire, considering how late the House was poised to go.
As the House session dragged on, someone suggested the House should have a curfew. Many cities used to have a curfew, prohibiting Major League baseball teams from starting an inning after a certain hour if the game is delayed by rain. At 12:37 am Thursday, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) offered advice for night owls still monitoring the House session.
"For those of you watching at this hour, have a warm glass of milk," said Weiner on the House floor. "There might be a better way to get to sleep."
Despite the interminable sessions, John Boehner said earlier in the week that he was committed to the debate running long. Boehner said he truly had no clue how it might turn out. Still, that didn't stop some GOPers from criticizing Democrats for utilizing the parliamentary options available to them under this process. In a message to Republican lawmakers obtained by Fox, one leadership aide accused Democrats of "intentionally slow-walking the open debate process."
Democrats countered that Republicans offered a lot more amendments than Democrats. And some framed a few GOP amendments as absurd. In particular, Democrats pointed to a proposed amendment authored by freshman Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR). Womack's aimed to end funding for President Obama's TelePrompTer.
"He's a gifted orator. He's a very glib individual. And it is somewhat concerning to me that we are pouring such enormous resources into a system that is designed to make an already good speaker a better speaker," said Womack.
Womack estimated the cost of Mr. Obama's TelePrompTer in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but couldn't get a cost analysts from the Congressional Budget Office.
Womack later withdrew his amendment.
"I think we made our point. We're asking people to do more with less. And I think the president ought to lead by example," Womack said.
And so the debate raged with no sense as to the size of the legislative galaxy.
In Men in Black, Tommy Lee Jones character tells Will Smith that they have a "galactic standard week" to avoid the destruction of the planet. Jones then informs Smith that a "galactic standard week" only accounts for one hour on Earth.
One hour (or a galactic standard week) is the typical time allocation for debating many issues in the House.
But on this spending bill, the House already burned through many a galactic standard week. And there's apparently a lot more to go on the calendar.