The House minority has minimal power, but the threat of the parliamentary tools it can wield has spooked Republicans and led them to demand a budget agreement with Senate Democrats as a condition for proceeding to a conference committee.
House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., acknowledged in an interview that his decision to seek a pre-conference agreement with Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., stems from his desire to block House Democrats from forcing unlimited, daily votes on fiscal matters, as would be their right under House rules if a conference committee failed to conclude within three weeks. Given how disparate the chambers' fiscal 2014 budget resolutions are, bicameral negotiations could take months.
GOP sources concede that House Republicans fear Democrats would force them to take politically difficult votes in the likelihood that the House-Senate conference committee did not reach a deal within 10 legislative days or 20 calendar days. Votes on "motions to instruct" can be requested on any subject germane to the federal budget, affording the Democrats wide latitude to press the Republicans on myriad thorny issues the GOP would prefer not to weigh in on.
But Ryan said his primary objective is to prevent a divisive partisan battle that would consume Congress throughout the summer and make it harder for House Republicans and Senate Democrats to reach a budget compromise. The congressman also worries that a protracted budget fight would poison the legislative process and spill into negotiations to raise the debt ceiling, which the Congress must do this fall when the U.S. is expected to reach its borrowing limit.
"The moves I'm making, and the decisions I'm making, are to try and maximize the chance of success in the fall," Ryan said Thursday during a brief interview with The Washington Examiner. "If we go to conference and it's a stalemate and we have all these motions to instruct and all of this partisan fighting after 20 days, then we'll grow farther apart and we'll make it harder to get an agreement, that's why we're doing what we're doing."
Ryan said his effort to reach a pre-conference agreement is ongoing. The 2012 vice presidential nominee said the two chairmen spoke twice this past week, although he was candid in his assessment of whether their talks would bear fruit: "I honestly don't know."
Pre-conference agreements are not unusual, and have been sought by House and Senate leaders in the past to avoid an impasse during negotiations over what are often two diametrically opposed versions of a bill. The last time Congress approved a budget resolution, in 2009, the House and Senate pre-conferenced for two months before meeting in a conference committee that lasted 10 days — and that was when the Democrats controlled both chambers.
But House and Senate Democrats are crying foul over the pre-conference demands being issued by their GOP counterparts — and the fact that they're being issued at all.
Democrats are particularly rankled because the Republicans complained for four years that President Obama and Senate Democrats ignored "regular order" on the budget, and they vowed in January that they were through negotiating with the White House and returning to traditional legislative procedure for approving the fiscal 2014 spending plan and other bills. Democrats say it's now the Republicans who are running from "regular order" because they no longer find it politically convenient.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., derided Ryan's refusal to proceed immediately to a conference committee. The congressman asserted that either the Republicans do not want to defend their budget policies in a public forum, or fear they won't be able to secure the votes from their own members for a deal. And, Van Hollen suggested rather unapologetically that House Democrats would almost certainly make use of "motions to instruct" votes to pin down the Republicans.
"Look, that's part of the regular order. Those are the rules of the House — those are the Republican rules. I don't think people should be using that as an excuse for not trying and move forward," said Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. "I think the real reason is, they see it as being in a tough position because if you go to conference, you have a public debate over the different approaches to the economy and jobs and the budget."
The House Republican budget would cut $4.6 trillion, reforma entitlement programs like Medicare and promises to balance the books in less than a decade. The Senate Democratic budget spends more generously, particularly on social programs, while raising nearly $1 trillion in taxes, although on who would depend on what the Senate Finance Committee decides.
Senate rules preclude the budget resolution from being filibustered. To maximize their negotiating position, the Republican minority has used parliamentary procedures to block Murray from appointing conference committee members and proceeding to the bicameral budget talks. In exchange for relenting, Senate Republicans want Democrats to drop their proposal to raise taxes. They also want assurances from Murray that a debt ceiling hike will not be coupled with the budget resolution.
Not all Senate Republicans agree with these tactics. But they have the support of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has personally delivered at least half of the objections to Murray on the floor.
Meanwhile, some congressional observers have speculated that Senate Republicans aligned with the tea party have joined McConnell in objecting because they do not trust Ryan or the House GOP leadership to hold the line on taxes and other conservative fiscal priorities. But Sen. Mike Lee, who along with Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky has been active in blocking Senate Democrats from moving to conference, said nothing could be further from the truth.
"This is not about, not trusting House Republicans, it has nothing to do with that," the Utah Republican said. "This has to do with the fact that we've got a job to do, and our job is to make sure that we have our say in it."