Imagine a basketball game in which each side had a phone-book-sized rule book, and every once in a while a player on the bench would pick up his head from the book and say, "Wait! It says here on page 845 that if four of our players hold their breath and hum 'It's a Small World After All,' then you have to take the next free throw standing on one foot with your eyes closed!" That's kind of what legislating in the U.S. Congress is like. It's governed by a spectacularly complex set of rules, including some that most of the participants have barely heard of or understand.
Which brings us to today, when Democrats in the House used a procedural gambit to produce a vote on extending the tax cuts only for those below $250,000 of income, thus forcing Republicans to take a stand on whether they'll accept tax cuts for regular folks without tax cuts for rich folks. I'll let Brian Beutler explain:
Brace yourself for some procedural jargon: Dems once believed they were faced with two mixed options for holding this vote. The first was to hold an up-or-down vote under the normal rules. But that would give Republicans the opportunity to introduce what's known as a motion to recommit -- a procedural right of the minority that would have allowed them to tack an extension of tax cuts for high-income earners on to the legislation.
The second option -- suspending the rules -- would have foreclosed on that right, but would have required a two-thirds majority of the House for passage: 290 votes, an impossible hurdle.
But Democrats figured out a way to avoid this. They're attaching their tax cut plan as an amendment to a separate bill [the Airport and Airway Extension Act, to wit]. That legislation already passed the House, and has just been returned from the Senate. The rules say it can't be recommitted. So the GOP's hands are tied.
Needless to say, Republicans are outraged -- outraged!!! -- that Democrats found a procedural maneuver that trumped their procedural maneuver. John Boehner called it "chickencrap." But what all this is about is whether you can hold a vote on something in which the side with more votes wins. Although these days, that almost never happens in the Senate, and in the House it actually happens occasionally.
And one more thing is worthy of note here: While the White House seems to be spending its time devising new and creative ways to capitulate to Republicans, over in the House, Nancy Pelosi still has her war paint on and a knife in her teeth.
-- Paul Waldman