WASHINGTON — A year ago, when Republicans were in the minority on Capitol Hill, they drove Democrats crazy by using an obscure parliamentary maneuver to change, delay and even kill Democratic priorities.
Now that Republicans are running the House, Democrats have tried to stymie the GOP agenda by relying on the tactic, known as the motion to recommit. But they've failed on every one of their 23 attempts this year.
That motion is almost always the last step just before the final vote on a bill. It gives the minority party, which has little voice and few rights in the House, a last chance to amend a bill, or in a more traditional sense, return it to the committee level for further work.
Often, the maneuver is aimed at forcing members of the majority into an untenable choice between opposing their party's position or casting a vote that opponents could use against them in election campaigns.
For a recommit motion to work, the minority party must pick off at least some members of the majority. Thus Democrats would need at least a few dozen of the House's 241 Republicans to vote with them this year. Their best showing so far on any motion: two GOP votes.
Republican leaders may have a hard time keeping their troops in line on the budget and social issues, but there's near ironclad unity when it comes to keeping Democrats in their place.
A Democratic motion on a recent bill to cut off federal dollars for National Public Radio would have continued money for Amber alerts on NPR regarding abducted children. The motion didn't get a single Republican vote. Nor did Democrats get a nibble when they called for federal air marshals on high-risk flights as part of aviation legislation.
On a highway spending bill, Democrats were shut out when they tried to cut off federal aid for "bridge to nowhere" projects in Alaska. They drew a single vote on a motion to the last short-term spending bill stating that there would be no cuts to Social Security or Medicare. "That is simply a fog screen," GOP Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in opposing it.
Such motions rarely succeed for either party. But Republicans in the recent past have managed to entice conservative and vulnerable Democrats with motions on sensitive subjects such as guns, abortion and immigration.
Republicans nearly succeeded in derailing the health care act last year with a motion to recommit that contained anti-abortion provisions. Democratic leaders had to appease their own anti-abortion wing to secure their votes against the GOP motion.
In 2007 Democrats had to withdraw a bill giving residents in the District of Columbia a vote in the House because of a motion to repeal the city's tough gun laws.
Last spring Republicans succeeded in changing a bill to subsidize people who buy energy-efficient products for their homes. GOP lawmakers made the changes part of a recommit motion barring contractors from hiring child molesters.
A week later they watered down a science and technology bill by attaching their version to a proposal to fire government works who view pornography on the job. Many Democrats, envisioning election-year attack ads claiming they supported pornography, had to go along.
In December, Republicans used a similar tactic to force Democrats to withdraw temporarily a bill expanding child nutrition programs. By voting against the Republican alternative, a lawmaker could be portrayed as supporting federal food money for institutions that hire convicted sex offenders.
Norm Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said Republicans have developed the procedure as "a potent weapon of embarrassment." They focused, he said, not so much on offering alternatives as entrapping Democrats with "gotcha" proposals.
"The Democrats have not been as relentless or adept as Republicans as far as crafting" the motions, Ornstein said.
Democrats predict they'll have more success as the 2012 election approaches. "It depends on whether the Republican rank and file come to listen to their constituencies," said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for the House Democratic campaign committee. "Right now they are listening to their leadership."
Republican leaders have explained to their members that Democrats are given opportunities to offer amendments, and that the motions are merely procedural votes on issues where Democrats are trying to score political points.
It wasn't always that way.
In 1909, opponents of autocratic Speaker Joe Cannon, R-Ill., forced a rule change giving priority to an opponent to offer an alternative before a final vote. In 1932 that was changed to give the minority party a last shot.
Democrats increasingly squelched that right in their many decades of controlling the House. When Republicans took over in 1995, they promised that the right to offer a motion to recommit would be honored even as they united in defeating Democratic proposals.
The Democratic return to power in 2007 was accompanied by the continued trend, starting under the Republicans, of limiting the minority's right to offer amendments. The motion to recommit was often the only chance to affect legislation.
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"In recent years, and not just under the current majority, the minority has been forced to use the motion to recommit, often in ways that are painful for the majority, to ensure the minority's voice is heard," Ohio Rep. John Boehner, then the minority leader, told the American Enterprise Institute in a speech last September. "And in turn, the majority has responded by conjuring up new ways to shut the minority out even further. It's a cycle of gridlock."
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