WASHINGTON — When Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., faced his first deadline to prevent a government shutdown in November, he knew his own party wouldn’t let him bring up a bill the normal way.
And so he short-circuited the process and called the vote under “suspension of the rules,” sending the stopgap funding bill straight to the floor with a catch: It needed a two-thirds majority to pass.
It passed with the help of Democrats, as 93 Republicans — almost half of his members — defected.
Two months later, Johnson executed the same move to keep the government open and buy time for negotiations, again recognizing that GOP rebels in his ranks would strangle a vote on a short-term bill. Again, Democrats helped pass it with a supermajority vote, while more Republicans split down the middle.
Welcome to the new House of Representatives under the thin Republican majority. It’s becoming so inept at moving legislation through the normal process that it’s starting to look like a more rowdy Senate, where the minority party can bless or block bills and the once-rare 60-vote threshold, or two-thirds in the House, has become the new normal.
The House is expected to use the supermajority process again on Wednesday to pass a $78 billion tax bill, which faces GOP objections. And some Republicans say they’ll have to use the same approach if they want to pass full-year government funding and a potential Senate immigration and Ukraine aid pact.
“It’s a stunning development,” said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute who specializes in Congress.
At issue for Johnson is his members’ increasing use of a normally procedural vote, known as the “rule,” to try to block their own party’s legislation. Earlier this month, 13 right-wing lawmakers tanked a rule on the floor to protest the spending deal Johnson struck with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., even though they supported the unrelated bill it was designed to bring up. And on Tuesday, four centrist New York Republicans nearly torched a rule in protest of a tax bill that didn’t expand the state and local deduction, switching their votes at the last minute after they felt they had made their point.
In recent months the Republican dysfunction in the Rules Committee, and the party’s inability to stick together to advance those motions on the floor, “has created a de facto filibuster because Johnson has resorted to a supermajority process,” Huder said.
“It’s not surprising they’re leaning on Democrats. It’s the only tool they have to control the floor on these big deals,” Huder said. “But what’s not clear is how long this is sustainable.” Eventually, he said, pressure will grow and Johnson will be put “in an even more precarious position. Either he’ll lose his job or some rules changes will come about. But the last couple months have been very unusual.”
The change has far-reaching implications for the House, where the longstanding tradition is that the majority party unifies to vote in favor of a procedural rule. Members could vote for or against a bill, but the rule was sacrosanct. Vote against it, they would say, and you’re simply turning the chamber over to the minority party.
Yet lately, numerous factions of Republicans have weaponized the tradition and voted down rules — or at least threatened to — as a point of leverage to advance their goals.
“This, for many years, basically never happened, and now it’s just a regular thing people do,” said Brendan Buck, a former aide to two Republican House speakers. “Two things hammered into new members’ heads: Don’t lie to the whip and don’t vote against a rule.”
The fragile GOP majority was on display on Monday, when Democrats had more members voting than Republicans, 201 to 198.
“My Republican friends barely — barely — control the House of Representatives,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the ranking member of the Rules Committee, said on the floor.
Some swing-district lawmakers say they want to get results and that it’s unfortunate legislation now requires a two-thirds vote.
“The problem is: We’re going to have to put everything on suspension because we can’t get a rule passed,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa. “The threshold is now two-thirds.”
The practice of tanking rules was instigated by far-right Republicans, who have used aggressive tactics to get their way. Now, centrist GOP lawmakers say they can play that game, too.
“Inherently I’m a team player,” Rep. Nick LaLota, R-N.Y., who was part of the revolt on Tuesday over the SALT deduction. “But we’ve seen, 13 months here, small groups of individuals get their way when they use tactics like taking down rules. So we’re aware of that tactic. We’re aware of how successful it’s been politically. And all options are on the table to get the results for our constituents.”