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Into the Weeds - The Ugly Underbelly of Congressional Process

The Speaker’s Lobby: Simmer Down

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News, 19 November 2015

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) probably knows how to calm things down when things get a little noisy around the house in Janesville, WI. Three kids and all, you know. So Ryan knew he had to quiet the din inside the House chamber Monday night to lead members in a moment of silence for the victims of the Paris terrorism attacks.

Ryan rapped the gavel a couple of times. The cacophony barely waned. The Wisconsin Republican immediately resorted to a tactic he may have used a time or two back home.

“Shhhhh!” interjected Ryan.

The commotion on the floor ceased immediately and proceeded to the moment of silence in record time.

With that singular, sibilant phonation, Ryan distinguished himself from his predecessor, former Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).

Boehner never 

“shushed” members when he needed to curtail the bedlam on the floor. Boehner would patiently tap the gavel, ask for order and then hammer the gavel a few more times until everyone simmered down. The process consumed a few moments. But Ryan’s ploy brought order to the chamber RIGHT NOW.

Such is the case with House Speakers. They have 434 other members who sometimes need to be hushed. Pacified. Guided.

And when you wield the Speaker’s gavel, this isn’t just about knowing how to mute the aural cacophony in the chamber. It’s about knowing how to address political firestorms to satisfy the membership. Ryan and Boehner may take different tacks on the dais, but they appear to use the same methods to mollify lawmakers.

Boehner honed the formula. A big bill or issue would come racing down the pike. Boehner knew conservatives would demand a very particular, oftentimes stark approach to an issue. But Boehner also knew that gambit might stall in the Senate or face a presidential veto. Boehner often engineered an artifice bill to sate the legislative appetite. While that bill usually served as red meat for the conservative base, it wasn’t a true legislative solution to whatever mega-issue loomed.

So Boehner perfected the art of frequently advancing a veneer bill for Republicans first – and then a few days later bringing up a measure which actually addressed the problem. Many Republicans would often reject the second bill. But it was a plan which could navigate the Senate and earn the President’s signature, thus averting a crisis.

Paul Ryan hasn’t occupied the Speaker’s suite long enough to mirror Boehner’s parliamentary prototype. But there’s a strong indication that the measure the House plans to consider today to restrict the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S. mirrors Boehner’s precedent.

Lawmakers fretted over the weekend that ISIS could execute a wide-scale, coordinated terrorist attack on U.S. soil like the one last week in Paris. Republicans had long harbored reservations about terrorists gaining entry to the U.S. by falsely claiming refugee status. FBI Director James Comey recently told a Congressional hearing it was hard to adequately adjudicate everyone seeking refugee status and coming to the United States. Republicans demanded they plug the loophole.

The GOP bill would bolster the vetting of Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing the scourge of ISIS. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC) crafted the measure. The bill freezes the admission of refugees to the U.S. until the FBI Director, Homeland Security Secretary and Director of National Intelligence “certifies to Congress that each refugee is not a security threat to the United States.”

Most House Republicans support the bill. Democrats privately agonized about the measure Wednesday. Democrats balked that the McCaul/Hudson measure was calloused toward those in need of political asylum. They argued that the bill flew in the face of American values.

“Slamming the door in the face of victims of terror is un-American,” protested Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee at a Wednesday hearing. “These people are the victims of ISIS. They are not ISIS.”

But some Republicans are leery about admitting any refugees from Iraq and Syria. 

Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) noted that refugee advocates often argue that accepting children is alright because they “certainly can’t be a threat.” Miller then cited the cases of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Both identified themselves as Chechens who came with their families seeking political asylum when they were young.

Democrats accused Republicans of playing on unwarranted, base fears that terrorists could exploit American charity – especially after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) suggested the U.S. only accept “Christian refugees.”

Paul Ryan knew Republicans faced geopolitical trouble over a perceived “Christian” bias. The Speaker tried to quash that fervor in a floor speech.

“We will not have a religious test. Only a security one,” Ryan declared.

Ryan also addressed concerns which resonate with many Republican members.

“The country is uneasy and unsettled. And they have every right to be,” said the Speaker.

Democrats quickly found themselves in a box and howled to their leadership team, apoplectic that the GOP would portray them as “soft” on security and terrorists. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) huddled with Ryan to request changes to the bill or permit Democrats to offer their own refugee alternative as an amendment. Ryan declined. The House Rules Committee refused to permit debate on any amendments to this bill, despite promises from Ryan of a more open, amendment-driven process.

Among amendments the Rules Committee rejected was a plan by Reps. Brian Babin (R-TX), Dave Brat (R-VA) and others to place a six-month moratorium on all refugee resettlement efforts and order a study on the stress refugees might place on local government.

“That is not optimal,” said Brat when asked about the GOP brass shutting out his amendment. He added that the McCaul/Hudson plan “is not as strong as we’d like it to be.”

But despite that concern, the House aims to adopt the refugee bill today.

“I think our bill is stronger than theirs,” said Pelosi about the Democratic alternative.

The California Democrat then asked her members to vote no on the measure. President Obama threatened a veto.

Some questioned the speed at which the House moved the McCaul/Hudson plan – especially since Ryan spoke grandiloquently about adhering to “regular order” to advance legislation. That would requires measures to methodically matriculate through committees. Instead, the GOP leadership rushed this plan to the floor. Some even wondered if the Republican effort may be left to an upcoming omnibus spending bill to fund the entire government due in three weeks.

“I don’t think we have time to wait for funding bills,” said Ryan on Fox. “We have to do this now.”

“Haste makes waste!” charged Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) at a meeting of the House Rules Committee Wednesday night, prepping the legislation for floor debate. “If you are in a hurry you can make a mistake.”

The speed of this bill raises questions. There’s a veto threat. Plus, it’s unclear if this bill can clear two steep procedural hurdles to skate through the Senate. Either way, the Senate doesn’t plan to touch this issue until at least early December.

Some lawmakers question just how effective this bill would be even if were signed into law.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson delivered a classified, Senate briefing on Paris at the Capitol late Wednesday. Johnson decried the House bill requirement that he personally probe and attest that each refugee wouldn’t pose a terrorism threat. Johnson was careful to say he would take such a vetting process “seriously.” But he took issue with the process.

“It’s hugely cumbersome and I don’t think this is the best use of the Secretary’s time,” Johnson said. He said the assignment could distract him from attending to other critical responsibilities of protecting the U.S.

Then there’s the practicality of the dash to pass a bill. What impact would it have on actually securing the U.S.? Migration officials say it takes a minimum of 18 to 24 months to vet Syrian refugee candidates. So, what’s the rush? 

“If you’re a terrorist, are you going to sit there for 24 months or get on a damn airplane and come to the United States right now?” asked Rep. John Carter (R-TX).

So, this bill may sprint through the House later today. But it’s future and impact could be dubious.

Still, Ryan’s politically savvy enough to know the GOP brain trust needed to consider a bill before the Thanksgiving recess to at least provide the semblance of acting and not standing idly by.

On Monday night, Ryan demonstrated he knew how to quiet the sometimes rambunctious masses in the House with his “Shhhhh!” And Ryan also knew that forcing a debate and vote on this bill was another method to settle down lawmakers as well.

Chad Pergram, Senior Producer for Capitol Hill

FOX News chad.pergram@foxnews.co 202 253 5295


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