Options on the Table

The Speaker’s Lobby: Options on the Table

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

09 June 2009


“All options are on the table,” declared House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) at last Thursday’s weekly press briefing with reporters.


Except when they’re not.


The “options” Boehner refers to are the tactics available to try to force the hand of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) about her accusations that the CIA lied to her about interrogation techniques. The Ohio Republican has dogged the Speaker to either prove her assertions or apologize to the spy agency. And Boehner seems determined to keep up the heat on Pelosi, despite a statement a few weeks ago that she has full confidence in the intelligence community.


But the problem is that Boehner’s “table” is small. And the “options” he speaks of are hardly voluminous.


After enduring two election bloodbaths, Boehner leads a deep minority in the House. Republicans hold only 178 members in the 435 person body. Unlike the Senate, which is a body of equals, the majority rules in the House. And minority members are sentenced to enduring the harsh, tyrannical whims of the majority. That’s why there was a mass exodus of senior Republicans two years ago who decided to retire from Congress rather than serve in the minority. Think the trend is over? Check out President Obama’s nomination last week of Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) for Army Secretary. McHugh figured he’d be better off serving a liberal president of the opposing party than languishing in the Democratically-dominated House.


In the Senate, lawmakers can filibuster. They can take the floor and speak. And speak. And speak. They can place “holds” on nominations or bills to gum up the works. They can vote against invoking cloture, or cutting off debate. They can object to unanimous consent requests from Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to complete the most simple of parliamentary tasks. In other words, a single, determined senator can gum up the plans of his or her 99 colleagues. If executed correctly, a small minority can dominate the Senate.


Not the case in the House. Boehner’s lofty “options?” He ain’t got many.


Here are the arrows available in Boehner’s quiver to fire at Pelosi:


A Privileged Resolution: Two weeks, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) introduced what’s called a “privileged resolution” in the House. By definition, a privileged resolution goes to the front of the legislative line. It must be considered immediately or within two days. But first the resolution must clear a relatively high bar to truly be ruled as “privileged” by the House parliamentarian. To be considered as “privileged,” a resolution must collectively suggest that someone’s conduct has soiled the reputation of the House.


Bishop’s resolution didn’t suggest that Pelosi’s assertion about the CIA tarnished the House. All it did was ask for the creation of a special, bipartisan subcommittee to probe Pelosi’s allegation. That’s why the parliamentarian ruled the resolution was not privileged. Alternatively however, the House decided that Bishop could go through the regular legislative process to create such a panel. Bishop appealed the ruling that his resolution was not privileged. And Democrats moved to table, or kill Bishop’s appeal.


Later, Bishop introduced his resolution through the traditional legislative pipeline. It’s now camped before a House panel. I asked a senior Democratic aide whether the resolution had a snowball’s chance of going anywhere.


“Stay tuned,” said the aide, who then hastened to add, “But don’t hold your breath, either.”


So Boehner and the Republicans are stuck. Only the majority decides to move legislation in the House. And Democrats are likely to euthanize Bishop’s proposal by neglect.


However, the challenge to Team Boehner is to craft a resolution that WOULD be ruled in order. And perhaps court a few conservative Democrats to vote against the Speaker. The House might not approve the resolution. But it has to be drafted properly.


Legislating is the “art of the possible.” And so far, House Republicans haven’t unearthed that “possible.”


In other words, yes, it’s “possible” that the Washington Nationals could win the World Series this year. They haven’t been mathematically eliminated from the postseason. But it’s possible. That’s the creative challenge facing Republicans if they want to hector Pelosi: crafting a resolution that would be ruled in order that could hold potentially embarrassing consequences for the Speaker.


In short, Republicans are limited in their formal, parliamentary options.


An as yet unexplored option available to Republicans is to write a resolution that calls for the House to censure or reprimand Pelosi. Both are essentially slaps on the hands of a lawmaker who the House determines has misbehaved. But such a maneuver, taken against a sitting House Speaker, who hasn’t been accused of any crime, would be extraordinary. And while it may play well to the GOP base, a resolution of censure or reprimand could atrophy any semblance of House bipartisanship. After all, a powerful majority can be vindictive.


Twice in the past two years, Republicans tried to censure House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) for their conduct. But approval of such a resolution requires a majority vote. And Republicans cobble together the votes to approve such a plan.


Lesser, but more “annoying” options might be repeated motions to adjourn. Motions to adjourn can jam the House floor and siphon away lots of time. Especially if it’s tried over and over again in an effort to frustrate the majority. But Republicans run the risk of appearing as though they aren’t serious about their work if they try that strategy.


Then the GOP has non-parliamentary options.


Republicans could stage a walkout from the House chamber. Walkouts are largely symbolic and concocted for the media. Usually the minority alerts the press that its entire membership is going to walk out of the House chamber after a vote and hold a press conference in the House steps. TV outlets then train their cameras on the Capitol to capture shots of the lawmakers “walking out” in solidarity.


Republicans attempted this effort two years ago to protest a vote the GOP says the Democrats closed too early.


And then there’s guerrilla warfare.


Last summer, the GOP commandeered the House floor for days on end during last summer’s August recess. They claimed Pelosi “turned out the lights” on them while they wanted to stay and debate energy policy. Truth be told, the House (albeit with a  Democratic majority) voted to adjourn for August. And Republicans simply took to an abandoned floor each day and railed against the Democrats. Republicans scored lots of press at the beginning of the break. But attention dwindled the recess wound deeper into August.


The final option for Republicans is to lob a barrage of verbal, Molotov cocktails at Pelosi. The GOP can do that on the floor during special speeches allowed at the start and the end of each day. And they can certainly accost Pelosi with a fusillade of news conferences. Truly, with the majority in full command of the House floor, this is the only real “option” available to Republicans. Perhaps that’s why John Boehner last week summoned the press for a news conference less than an hour after returning to Washington after the Memorial Day recess.


The key weapon in the minority arsenal is not a sidewinder missile. But something less sophisticated. Mud. In other words, fleck some mud at Pelosi each day. Sure, it’s just a few pieces of goo here and there. But if you do it day after day after day, by November, 2010, the GOP hopes these volleys will have smeared the Speaker. The trick is how much of it sticks and tarnishes Pelosi’s image.


Boehner may say that “all options are on the table.” But that might not be the case. Congressional Democrats are now laboring over major a major climate change and energy bill coupled with a massive plan to fundamentally alter the nation’s health care delivery system. Republicans may like to continue to firing their salvos at Pelosi over interrogations. But GOP sources believe they could score bigger points against Democrats by challenging the merits of these controversial policies.


“I’m not sure this is in our best interest with these other issues up next,” said a senior Republican aide.


Still, some Republicans are resolute in their pursuit of the Speaker.


“We intend to use every means at our disposal,” said House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN) of GOP efforts to fillet Pelosi. “You’re going o see Republicans take it up to the next level. We’re going to take this to the floor.”


But realistically, there isn’t much of a “next level” available to Pence. Lawyers in training are often coached to bang on the law when they have law on their side. They’re taught to bang on the facts when they have the facts on their side. And when they have neither of those in their favor, they’re told to bang on the table.


Regardless of the veracity of Pelosi’s allegations, Republicans don’t have many of Boehner’s “options on the table.” But they do have the table. And banging on that table might be only alternative available to Republicans to challenge the Speaker of the House.  


– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Congress. The Speaker’s Lobby is a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and reporters cluster there during votes on the House floor.