Amendment maneuvering this week proves Hill really is ‘policy in a political setting’

Lawmakers might not like the underlying bill up for debate in the House or Senate. But they’re often satisfied if they at least have a chance to offer an amendment to change the bill.

Maybe they’ll win. Maybe they won’t. But consideration of an amendment gives lawmakers an opportunity to make their case to colleagues or draw attention to an issue.

Even if the amendment fails, its sponsor can still go home and say they fought for a certain principle or tried to alter a bad provision in the bill.

Amendments can be complex. But sometimes amendments mature in legislative gravity that everyone knows them by their sponsor.

Look up the “Stupak” or “Hyde” amendments sometime.

A holy trinity of controversial, unrelated amendments to two separate bills this week in the House offered a rare window into the mechanics of the legislative process, especially when the amendment proposals crashed into the quintessential crosscurrent that permeates the Capitol: politics.

Former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was fond of declaring that Congress does “policy in a political setting.”

The House’s disposition of the amendment triumvirate this week would certainly confirm Boehner’s notion.

The chamber was set to debate a measure that authorizes the nation’s defense programs. In late April, Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., R-Calif., offered an amendment in the Armed Services Committee’s “markup” session (in which lawmakers write the bill) to require women to register for Selective Service.

Hunter doesn’t actually back registering women between 18 and 26 for the draft. But with his amendment, he wanted to launch a conversation about the Selective Service system and on how the Obama administration views women in combat.

The committee rejected the amendment on what’s called a “voice vote.” That’s where lawmakers are asked to holler either “yea” or “nay.”

The committee chairman decides the prevailing side based on volume. The nays won. But a subsequent roll call vote surprised everyone. Five Republicans joined all Democrats, endorsing the amendment, 32-30.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, planned an amendment to counter the Hunter idea when the defense bill hit the House floor this past week.

But it never got that far.

Republicans already struggle with female and minority voters. People could view a vote to thwart the Selective Service amendment on the floor as sexist, “anti-female,” or “anti-equality.”

Most Republicans may oppose registering women for conscription. A floor vote could portray those lawmakers in a bad light. Or, those lawmakers who oppose including women in the draft could sit on their hands and, voila, the House maintains the Hunter amendment in the legislation and women would be required to register.

House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, short-circuited all of that late Monday. Sessions understood the political consequences of the Hunter amendment. He also knew the Hunter amendment imposed a complicated budgetary dilemma.

Under one federal accounting scheme, requiring women to register for the draft saved money. That’s because an entire class of people were suddenly ineligible for certain student aid programs. On another ledger, registering women for Selective Service imposed a cost. The government would now have to maintain a database of a brand new set of folks.

Under complex budget rules, the House would have to vote to waive some budget provisos and cough up money to offset the cost of registering women for Selective Service.

Seeing the puzzle ahead, Sessions intervened and trashed the amendment on fiscal grounds. He instead substituted an automatic requirement that Congress study Selective Service for the first time in two decades.

Thornberry described Sessions’ decision as a “surprise. But Thornberry leaned on the impenetrable budget rules as the reason the House stripped the draft amendment from the bill without a floor vote. A reporter then asked if Thornberry could explain the budget arcana.

“No!!!” blurted a bewildered Thornberry, drawing laughter from the scribes.

But wait. There’s more.

Multiple, senior congressional sources tell Fox News the GOP excised the Hunter amendment because Republican members could face a tough vote, not because of the budget esotericism.

House Democrats enjoyed a field day with this decision. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., excoriated the GOP for extracting the amendment without a vote when House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he intended the body to work its will.

“They don’t want to subject their members to vote on equality for women,” Hoyer charged.

Another nettlesome issue raised its head later in the week: the Confederate flag.

The House GOP leadership yanked almost all annual spending bills off the floor last year because of a threat by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., to prohibit flying the Confederate battle banner at federal facilities.

The Huffman amendment created a poison pill for the GOP on two fronts. First, recruiting minorities is a longstanding challenge for the GOP. But a number of southern Republicans would undoubtedly vote no on the Huffman plan, igniting a political and racial firestorm. But even if the GOP was willing to weather the public relations storm, there was an operational complication. Losing such a high number of Republicans put the passage of those appropriations bills into question.

In other words, the bills would likely fail on top of the GOP taking heat for voting against removing the Confederate flag.

So last year, the Republican’s solution was to not consider any more appropriations bills, lest they face the puzzle posed by the Huffman amendment.

The first spending package out of the box for the House this year funds the Department of Veterans Affairs and military construction projects.

So Huffman came back with his amendment to bar funding for the display of Confederate flags on mass graves at VA cemeteries. The outcome of Huffman’s amendment was unclear. But the Republican leadership didn’t wrench the appropriations package off the floor like it did last time.

When it came time to vote on the amendment, the House overwhelmingly voted to ban flying the Confederate flag in federal graveyards, by a vote of 265 to 159.

Eighty-four House Republicans -- including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., voted aye.

“It’s a big turnaround,” remarked Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who cosponsored the amendment with Huffman.

Ryan indicated that by supporting the amendment “people realized the last thing we should do is derail our appropriations process” and must be willing to take “tough votes.”

Gallego said Republicans learned to pick their battles.

“This was not the hill they were going to die on in a (Donald) Trump year,” Gallego said.

A smattering of Democrats in the chamber applauded when the House adopted the Confederate flag amendment Thursday morning. But utter pandemonium quickly flushed the relative calm a few moments later.

That’s when the House voted on an amendment by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., to bar federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees.

Earlier this year, Ryan made a point of enforcing strict time limits during roll call votes: Either 15, five or two minutes.

This was a two-minute vote. When the clock hit 00:00, it appeared as though the House OK’d Maloney’s plan, 217 to 206.

To be fair, the presiding officer doesn’t time the vote to the nanosecond when the clock winds down.

But under Ryan’s tenure, votes have stuck more closely to the clock than during Boehner’s regime. For years, votes would stretch on with moments added without explanation.

Those protracted votes resembled “injury and booking” time pasted on the end of a Premier League soccer match.

But this vote mysteriously remained open.

And minutes dripped off the clock.

Republican leaders herded their members to change their votes. As the margin for victory for Maloney slipped to 213 yeas and 212 nays, Democrats began chanting “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

The real-life consequences of adopting the Maloney amendment were thorny for many Republicans. But the operational predicament for the GOP was more immediate.

In other words, the GOP could face a quandary just like last year on the Huffman amendment and the Confederate flag. Would enough Republicans be willing to vote in favor of the entire VA/Military Construction spending bill even if they attached the anti-LBGT provisions?

Or, would the brass lose enough Republican votes to torpedo the entire piece of legislation and perhaps force leaders to jerk the legislation off the floor?

Votes started to switch as Republican vote counters prowled around the chamber.

The GOP kept the scheduled two-minute vote open seven minutes and 37 seconds. GOP Reps. Greg Walden, Oregon, Bruce Poliquin, Maine, David Young, Iowa, and Darrell Issa, Jeff Denham, David Valadao and Mimi Walters, all California, flipped their votes from yea to nay.

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., presiding over the House from the dais, then gaveled the vote to a close amid howls of protest from Democrats.

Maloney’s amendment failed, 213-212.

Chaos erupted. Democrats booed. Lawmakers hollered for recognition above the din in the House chamber.

“They literally snatched discrimination from the jaws of equality,” fumed Maloney, an openly gay congressman.

Technically, lawmakers are required to come to the well of the chamber and fill out a card if they switch their vote at that point in the tally.

That’s because electronic voting machines are turned off. The House reading clerk then orally announces the change to the entire body.

None of that happened.

“I was standing in the well!” Hoyer to the chairman. “No one came. Or no one had the courage to come into the well to change their vote. But not withstanding that, the vote kept changing!”

The GOP was flummoxed. But they won the vote, preserved the bill (which passed minutes later) and protected their members.

Reporters pressed Ryan if he knew about his lieutenants pressuring members to change their votes.

“I don’t know the answer. I don’t even know,” Ryan replied. “This is federalism. The states should do this. The federal government shouldn’t stick its nose in this business.”

A trifecta of amendments, all with different fates. The Hunter Amendment. The Huffman Amendment. The Maloney Amendment. Each an effort to influence the debate and bend legislation.

And all amendments so important this week in Congress, that everyone knows these amendments by name.