WASHINGTON -- Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has been fuming in recent days about Republicans quietly changing the House rules to prevent a clean funding bill from getting a vote, guaranteeing the government would remain shut down.
But two weeks ago, in the middle of a largely unnoticed House Rules Committee hearing, it was Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) reacting in disbelief to what Republicans had done.
House rules typically allow any member, Republican or Democrat, to call up a Senate-passed bill for a vote. But on Sept. 30 -- the eve of the government shutdown -- Republicans on the House Rules Committee changed the rule so only House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) could call up a Senate-passed clean funding bill -- a bill that has the votes to pass the House and would end the shutdown, if it were given a vote. The move to prevent lawmakers from bringing up the bill came as part of Republican leaders' strategy to try to extract concessions from Democrats in exchange for reopening the government.
A video clip from that hearing, which surfaced Monday, shows Slaughter, the ranking Democrat on the committee, trying to comprehend why Republicans would make such a significant change to House rules.
"It was just pointed out to me that under regular order of the House, any member can call for a vote on the Senate proposal," Slaughter says to Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas). "But you have changed that regular order under this resolution so that only the majority leader can do it. Can you tell us why you did that?"
"In fact, that is correct," Sessions said. "What we are attempting to do is to actually get our people together. Rather than trying to make a decision, we are trying to actually have a conference. ... So we think this is the quickest way to get that done."
They went back and forth several times, with Slaughter asking why Republicans would alter House rules and Sessions confirming only that the rules had been changed. They both established that, under normal circumstances, any lawmaker would have the right to make a "privileged motion" to call up the Senate-passed bill, at any time.
"I think you have taken that away," Slaughter said.
"That is what I am saying," Sessions said. "We took that away."
"Then how can we do it at any time?" she asked. Sessions replied, "I said you were correct we took it away. And the reason why is because we want to go to conference."
"Oh, mercy," Slaughter said. "I think it is an atrocity to the rules of the House."
"I must tell you," she added, "that I am more and more angry now that I understand that what you have done is take away our ability to really make a motion for that Senate vote."
Van Hollen flagged the rules change over the weekend during remarks on the House floor. By Monday, he was on TV trying to explain to Americans why the change was such a big deal.
"They changed and rigged the standing rules of the House in order to keep the government shut down," Van Hollen said on MSNBC. "If they had not changed that rule, the government would be open right now because I, for example, could have, under the normal rules of the House, demanded to have a vote on that Senate bill and we would have had the government open already."
Virginia Democrats are going after Cantor on the change. Reps. Jim Moran, Bobby Scott and Gerry Connolly -- all Virginia Democrats -- plan a press conference Tuesday on the rules change and the "sweeping authority" it has given Cantor to prevent the House from voting on a bill to end the shutdown.
"Statistics show that the government shutdown is impacting Virginia more than any other state," reads a joint press release from the three congressmen.
A Cantor spokesman referred questions on the rules change to the House Rules Committee.
Doug Andres, a Republican spokesman for the committee, said the whole point of the rules change was to force Senate Democrats to negotiate on broader budget issues.
"The House acted in good faith to open up negotiations with Senate Democrats, but Majority Leader Harry Reid dismissed the idea of bipartisan talks," Andres said. "That partisan refusal to negotiate should not be rewarded with control of the House floor. The easiest way to settle this is for both sides to sit down and finally talk."
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