Activism

Have House Democrats Found a Way to End the Shutdown?

The tactic adds pressure, but it won’t spark a quick vote.

Photo Credit: Steven Rosenfeld

As the Republican-led shutdown keeps lowering the GOP's poll numbers, a progressive coalition is calling on House Democrats and moderate Republicans to sign a petition to force a floor vote on a clean bill to open the government and raise the debt ceiling.

“John Boehner is too scared of the Tea Party extremists in his own party to bring a funding bill up for a vote—even though there are more than enough Democrats and moderate Republicans to pass one,” said Campaign for America’s Future. “But House Democrats just found a way to get around Boehner. Democrats can force a vote on a clean funding bill and reopen the government if 218 representatives sign a ‘discharge petition.’”

Campaign for America’s Future, Progressive Democrats of America, Democracy for America and Daily Kos are among those sending out emails urging people to push their representatives in Congress to sign the discharge petition. While Washington insiders have frowned at the strategy, saying the soonest it could force a House vote is weeks away (October 28), proponents counter that it is good organizing and showing backbone.

“The question is can this help pry moderate Republicans from the lockstep they are in within the GOP caucus,” said Robert Borosage, Campaign For America’s Future co-founder. “Eventually we will have to pass a [House] bill with Democrats voting to lift the debt ceiling and open the government... It has to be carried by Republicans to do that. There’s 20 of them that have said they support a clean bill.”

The email blasts urging people to contact their representatives make the discharge petition process sound far simpler than it actually is, according to experts in the House’s byzantine parliamentary rules and legislative calendar. Wednesday’s email from Progressive Democrats of America said, “All that is needed to end this impasse—designed by Tea Party radicals to kill Obamacare—is for enough Republicans (the party of Lincoln) (17 or so) to agree to sign a discharge petition with House Democrats.”

But according to RollCall.com, a publication that covers Congress, the soonest House rules would allow a discharge petition to bring a bill to the floor would be October 28, because discharge petitions have to clear a series of time-delayed steps to move ahead. RollCall notes that discharge petitions only “worked only twice in recent history (on a 1986 gun rights bill and a 2002 campaign finance bill).”

“That’s a week-and-a-half after what many believe is the more important deadline for Congress to meet: the Oct. 17 debt ceiling deadline when the Treasury says the government will be in danger of defaulting on its obligations.

“That may be why many GOP centrists have rejected the call to sign a petition to bring up a policy-rider-free CR [continuing resolution to fund the government] and instead have said they are more likely — though by no means certain — to use other procedural maneuvers if or when they decide to buck their leadership.”

Those other maneuvers would essentially hijack the debate, putting it in Democratic hands, and then present a clean bill that would resolve the standoff by reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling.

Washington is filled with political odds-makers who love to dismiss one strategy while touting another—when no one knows what will actually play out. That’s why Borosage isn’t paying heed to critics who dismiss the discharge petition tactic, because it is part of a strategy to push the House toward acting and identifying the obstructionists.

“It's just about pressure,” he said. “It puts [House] Democrats on the record. It’s the equivalent of what [Democratic Majority Leader] Harry Reid is trying to do in the Senate. You want to get all the House Democats signed up. It’s a way of constantly ratcheting up pressure and letting the public know who is standing in the way.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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