House Dems split over GOP’s use of ‘Motion to Recommit’

It’s a procedural issue, but it’s one that’s causing drama on Capitol Hill.

Republicans this week successfully altered a Democratic-led bill just moments before it passed. They did so using a “motion to recommit” — known on Capitol Hill as an “MTR” — which is one of the few tools held by the minority party to try to change bills they oppose.

The MTRs rarely work out for the minority because they need to win over enough members from the majority party to tip the scales and win.

But on Wednesday, Republicans got the backing of enough moderate Democrats — 26 — to effectively amend a major bill that requires background checks on all gun purchases. The GOP language mandates that Immigration and Customs Enforcement be notified of undocumented immigrants trying to buy guns — a provision that most Democrats vehemently opposed.

While tensions ran high among Democrats after the MTR vote, Republicans celebrated the victory — even though almost all Republicans voted against the broader background check bill in the end — and pointed to it as proof of a fractured Democratic caucus.

House Democratic Whip James Clyburn pushed back on the disunity argument.

“The cultural differences that exist in our caucus are a little bit different than the other side,” said Clyburn, a South Carolinian who is the third ranking Democrat in the chamber.

It’s now the second time this Congress that Republicans have won an MTR vote — something that Democrats were never able to accomplish in the past eight years when they were in the minority.

Democrats debate at Thursday meeting

It prompted an emotional, intra-party debate among Democrats in a meeting Thursday, as they discussed how to handle the issue under their new majority power. Of the proposals being floated, one idea is to get rid of the MTR altogether so that Republicans don’t have the opportunity to add language at the last minute.

But some Democrats, many of them moderates, favor allowing Democrats to vote on the MTRs in a way that best represents their districts, even if that means voting with Republicans. While MTRs are procedural votes, they are still tough for Democrats in swing districts and could be used against them politically by Republicans if moderate Democrats stick with their own party. Of the 26 Democrats who voted with Republicans on Wednesday in favor of the MTR, 22 come from districts won by President Donald Trump in 2016.

Meanwhile, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most progressive members of the caucus, expressed frustration in the Thursday meeting with how the MTR went down, saying the added language forced her to take a tough vote on the final passage of the bill. According to a source in the room, Ocasio-Cortez argued she had to choose between immigrants and gun violence, two top issues for progressive activists.

Spokesman Corbin Trent confirmed that Ocasio-Cortez, who’s aligned with a group willing to challenge Democrats they deem not progressive enough, warned during the meeting that she and liberal activists are keeping track of moderates who side with Republicans on key progressive issues. “They are making the list themselves,” Trent said of the moderates.

Others raise the idea of changing the rules so that Republicans file their MTR language with more advanced notice rather than just a few minutes before the vote, as the process currently works. That would give Democrats more time to whip their members and keep enough in line to avoid losing the MTR.

Institutionalists in the party, however, fear that reforming or eliminating the MTR could set a dangerous precedent that would come back to hurt Democrats in the future when they go back into the minority.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged her caucus in the meeting Thursday to simply stay united and view MTRs as they are — procedural votes to get to the final passage vote of a bill, not amendments that require more substantive consideration. If Democrats worry too much about the political implications for MTR votes, they risk fueling tougher MTR attempts by Republicans, she said.

“There might be a time when there is something so parochial to your district that there’s a case, but the minute you have decided it’s not a parochial vote, that it’s not a procedural vote, (Republicans) smell blood,” she said in the meeting. “They’re on your case for every other MTR, and are on the case of our other colleagues, especially our freshman colleagues.”

Later, in a news conference, she gave no indication she was considering proposals to change or nix the MTR. Rather, her message was clear to Democrats in swing districts.

“Vote no. Vote no. Just vote no, because the fact is a vote yes is to give leverage to other side — the surrender of the leverage on the floor of the House,” she said.

GOP says Democrats trying to ‘rig the rules’

Republicans, meanwhile, argue Democrats are trying to stifle the limited power that the GOP has as the minority party.

“Rather than reconcile the differences within their own party that they are driving the division, Democrats want to rig the rules and suppress the minority party’s speech on the House floor,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters.

Republicans say MTRs are their last chance to improve bills. And Lauren Fine, a spokeswoman for Republican Whip Steve Scalise, said Democrat-led arguments against the MTR is “completely contradictory to the pledge they made to voters to have an open and inclusive process.”

Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan argued Democrats were simply carrying through with what voters want. “You know who took away the power of the Republicans? The voters in 2018,” he said. “We’re in the majority. We ought to act like it.”

He claimed Republicans, emboldened by their MTR victories, will only get more creative in trying to put up language that will make it tough for some Democrats to oppose.

“Republicans are going to get trickier and trickier in trying to put land mines in these bills that look like pieces of candy,” Kildee said.

Republicans indeed remained united when they were the majority during the past eight years and didn’t lose any MTRs, but it’s not uncommon for Democrats to lose MTRs whenever they’re in the majority. From 2007 to 2011, the last time Democrats controlled the House, Democrats lost roughly 23% of the MTR votes.

“But the fact of the matter is, it didn’t affect our ability to pass substantive legislation,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who held the same position then as he does now.

The House had another MTR vote on Thursday before another background check-related bill. This time Democrats were more united and only had two defections among its ranks, both of them moderates, who sided with Republicans on the MTR.

Still, the issue is likely to see continued debate. As the source inside the spirited Democratic meeting said, “We’re not closer to solving the issue, but it was a good venting session.”