On Wednesday night, the House did something it used to do only rarely: It passed a substantive piece of legislation by an overwhelming majority, with a good mix of yes votes from both parties.
But in an age when House Republicans’ vote advantage over Democrats in the chamber fluctuates in the low single-digits daily depending on party absences, moments like Wednesday’s 357-70 vote to send a bipartisan tax bill over to the Senate aren’t as rare as they used to be.
In fact, this kind of dealmaking hasquietly become the standard way business is done in the House. And it will likely will remain that way, as long as the fractious Republican conference, caught between electorally-minded swing district members and the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus, is unable to unify.
For House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who saw his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), unceremoniously ousted for allegedly being too cooperative with Democrats, votes like Wednesday’s are preferable to getting nothing done or facing the same fate.
“It’s almost mind-boggling that on the Republican side this year, that this procedural majority, the ability of the party to command the agenda, it’s falling apart,” said Sarah Binder, a professor political science at George Washington University and a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution think tank.
Republican leaders, she said, aren’t “pulling up bills that meet the demands of Republicans. They’re pulling up bills that meet the demands of [House Democratic Leader] Hakeem Jeffries.”
Jeffries, for his part, said as long as a bill is “consistent” with his caucus’ values, his party will continue to “help shape it, support it and get it over the finish line.”
Of course, the Freedom Caucus and other rebellious Republicans still could attempt to oust Johnson as they did McCarthy, meaning Johnson can’t let all this bipartisanship alienate the GOP’s conservative core too much. That’s why the Senate’s bipartisan border toughness-for-Ukraine aid deal is unlikely to ever see the House floor, even if it would receive a majority of votes.
The House, long known as the place where only one number matters — 218, just over half of its 435 members — now requires a consensus even more than the Senate does, where three-fifths of members have to agree to allow a vote on most bills. It’sa situation unprecedented in modern congressional history.
The tax bill was only the latest example of a big bill approved through a oft-overlooked House voting process called “suspension of the rules” which requires a two-thirds majority of the House — an even higher standard than the Senate’s three-fifths threshold.
Ordinarily, House majority leadership decides on which bills should go to the floor for a vote each week. The rules for debate — how long lawmakers can discuss bills and what motions can be made before voting on them — are set by the Rules Committee, which is usually stocked with lawmakers loyal to the House speaker.
The rules have to be passed before underlying bills can be voted on and approved. Usually both votes are anticlimactic, as both parties typically vote as a bloc.
But since Johnson became speaker after the ouster of McCarthy in October, there’s been a tectonic shift. Disgruntled GOP House members have sometimes voted with Democrats on floor rules — a strict no-no by party loyalty standards — as a way to pressure Johnson and other party leaders. Johnson has also been saddled with a legacy of McCarthy’s: three hardline GOP members on the Rules Committee, where they can credibly threaten to tank rules they don’t like.
Practically, that means Johnson’s power to bring things he would like to the floor for a votehas been curtailed by having to have almost every single member of the 219-member conference on board.
Or, as Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) put it at a recent rules committee hearing: “We don’t pass laws up here anymore. We barely even pass rules.”
There’s a way around those rules, though.
While passing bills under suspension, as it’s called, is not new, it has traditionally been reserved for small-bore bills like measures to name post offices after local figures, transfer government lands or reauthorize obscure programs — things that would be needlessly slowed down by procedures and rules. But using suspension to get big bills across the finish line is new. For Johnson, it’s a way to make an end run around hardliners in his own conference who would likely sink any sort of must-pass bill they disagree with — even if the price is to have to pass a bill with even more Democratic fingerprints.
The tax bill is far from the only recentexample of this. A defense policy bill was snagged in the Senate over a fight over Pentagon abortion policy, but it was passed under suspension, as were the last two stopgap funding bills to temporarily keep the government open.
Johnson himself has quietly acknowledged the change, repeatedly mentioning to reporters his majority is probably the thinnest since the Congress of 1917-18. During those years, Democrats actually held one less House seat than Republicans, but held control because a small handful of progressives and a socialist allied with them.
But the 1917-1918 House was dealing with a Democratic Senate and a White House held by Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. Now, the House is the only of those three where Republicans hold sway.
At a press conference Tuesday, Johnson obliquely referred to House GOP members who would be out, making his margin of control even less than the 219-213 edge in party members he has on paper.
“We have only a tiny, as you know, razor-thin — actually, a one-vote — majority right now in the House,” he said, as he discussed lawmakers’ ongoing negotiations overborder security and military aid to U.S. allies. “Our majority is small. We only have it in one chamber. But we’re trying to use every ounce of leverage that we have to make sure that this issue is addressed.”
Binder said Republicans’ main power in the House is the ability to keep items from the House floor that they don’t want to vote on.
“You can block things. But there’s some things you just can’t block,” she said, like bills to keep the government open.
That means the most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill for dealmaking may not be the leader of the House but the head of the minority party in the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), which hasn’t seen the kind of GOP infighting the House has.
“The Senate is really driving these bargains here,” Binder said.
Binder noted that last year when a showdown over the debt ceiling was brewing, and before the House GOP fractured openly, McConnell deferred to then-Speaker McCarthy to make a deal with the White House. But in the debate over immigration, the House has been reduced to mostly waiting to see what the Senate sends it.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) who heads the House Rules Committee, which has become less important the more the suspension calendar has been used, said needing the minority party to provide votes on key suspension bills gives the Democrats more power than they would now have otherwise.
“If you’re the majority, you need to control the floor. If you don’t do that through procedural votes, you actually empower the [minority] beyond its numbers and that makes it much more difficult,” he said.
Rump groups within the Republican majority also feel empowered. A group of moderate House Republicans who wanted to restore part of a tax break for residents of high-tax states that was taken away in 2017 threatened to tank a rule this week unless they got concessions. It’s a tactic they learned from conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus.
Using the suspension calendar sidesteps that threat, but it also leaves Johnson vulnerable to a revolt within his own party if he puts the wrong thing on the floor.
“Government by suspension is not going to work. Period,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), a member of the Freedom Caucus, said in mid-January, after Johnson used the suspension calendar to allow a vote on another stopgap spending bill many in his group opposed. “This is not sustainable, by any stretch of the imagination.”