A minor oversight has landed the Senate Dems’ bipartisan bill to extend Violence Against Women Act protections to same sex couples, immigrants, and tribal communities in legislative limbo.
It’s not the first time a Senate-passed bill has been vaporized by the House for violating the Constitution’s requirement that revenue-raising legislation originate in the lower chamber. Sometimes when that happens it’s the result of a truly boneheaded error. But the current stalemate is the consequence of an unusual reading of the Origination Clause, and it’s less clear that the Senate Dems really biffed it than that House Republicans are twisting the intent, if not the letter, of the Constitution to undermine the Democrats’ leverage on this issue.
For a broader read, I asked AEI congressional scholar Norm Ornstein whether the issue here is Dem incompetence or GOP game playing. Both interpretations turn out to be plausible. But the greater issue, he argues, is that there are easy legislative fixes for this problem that will never be implemented because Republicans will use filibuster rules and their control of the House to block them.
“I think both explanations are valid,” Ornstein said. “([I]t is also possible that Senate Dems are happy to have House Republicans try to kill the bill based on a non-relevant technicality, keeping the issue of violence against women in the news.) It is perfectly reasonable for the House to guard its origination powers zealously; but the obvious way to deal with it is to turn around and vote on a House version of the Senate bill, with a new number, to reestablish its authority. That, of course, is not in the cards.”
In other words, if Republicans really wanted to resolve the differences between the bills in a traditional fashion, they could do so easily. As a Senate Dem aide points out, Republicans could allow Senate Dems to revote on a constitutionally compliant version of their bill, or simply decide not to blue-slip it. They have good reasons not to, and eventually Democrats might be forced to cut a deal if they want to actually pass the legislation. But between now and then, as Ornstein points out it gives Dems a decent political baton to wield against Republicans.
As if to prove the point, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid bloodied the GOP on the floor Monday afternoon. “Although both chambers have passed a version of this legislation, House Republicans have refused to go to conference,” he said. “[Their] excuse: a hyper-technical budget issue called a blue slip, isn’t much more than a fig leaf to blatant obstruction. Republicans are looking for any chance to stall or kill this legislation.”
Which is to say that for the moment, neither side really has much incentive to play nice.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.