Rarely Used ‘Discharge Petition’ in Play to Limit Shutdown
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Moderate Republicans are working with Democrats on a rarely used procedure to shorten a near-certain U.S. government shutdown and protect themselves from the anticipated political backlash from a federal funding lapse.
UPDATE, SEPT. 26: Senate leaders have a deal, but ...
The plan puts these vulnerable Republicans, including several from Democratic-friendly districts in New York, firmly at odds with hardliners in their own party. It could, however, limit a disruptive shutdown that threatens to stretch for a month or more to a little more than a week.
The ploy would deal a new blow to Speaker Kevin McCarthy, to whom these moderates have been loyal. The speaker already maintains tenuous control over the House’s fractious Republican majority, and using a maneuver to work around him weakens his leverage to extract concessions from Democrats.
Known as a discharge petition, the procedure was adopted by the House in 1910 as a check on the speaker’s power and would force a vote on a bill without his approval. Discharge petitions have been successfully deployed just twice this century.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators is nearing a deal on a plan that would fund the government for 45 days, people familiar with the talks said. McCarthy would face a tough choice on whether to hold a vote on such a measure since House conservatives have vowed to oust him if he does. The discharge petition could be used to bring the Senate bill to a vote.
The House, which returns Sept. 26 after a weekend break extended to mark Yom Kippur, has just five days before the shutdown deadline.
Given their narrow majority, only five Republicans must join with Democrats to bring it about. Thirty-two Republicans have already signed on to a bipartisan bill to fund the government through Jan. 11 and provide military aid to Ukraine.
Lawler at a campaign event in Mahopac, N.Y. (Dana Ullman/Bloomberg News)
Reps. Mike Lawler and Marc Molinaro, both New York Republicans who represent areas Democrat Joe Biden carried in the last presidential election, already have publicly threatened to join Democrats in such a petition, and other GOP moderates are ready to do so.
“Many of us are not in a position to support shutting the government down,” Molinaro said last week, as he sought to leverage the threat of a discharge petition to get conservatives to back a stopgap spending bill that included GOP border security demands.
Veteran New York political consultant Tom Doherty, a top aide to former three-term GOP Gov. George Pataki, said it’s “smart” for Lawler and Molinaro to support the maneuver.
“Going outside the norm and shutting down the government doesn’t play well in those districts,” Doherty said.
The discharge petition can be used to force a vote on that within nine “legislative days” when Congress is actually in session.
A discharge petition was last used to force a vote on a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank over conservative objections in 2015. The rare maneuver was also deployed in 2002 to get a vote on campaign finance legislation opposed by House Republican leaders.
McCarthy would be under heavy pressure from ultraconservatives to block a vote on reopening the government. Hardliners have privately threatened to oust him if temporary funding is approved through a discharge petition, a House GOP leadership official said.
Yet some of the tools to block a discharge petition would be politically risky.
Russ Vought, a former Donald Trump budget director who is advising hardliners, said in a social media post that McCarthy could keep the House in recess to prevent the magic nine legislative days from being reached. But a break for lawmakers would be hard to defend while federal employees go without pay and government services are disrupted.
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Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) threatened to travel to the district of any New York Republican who signs a discharge petition to campaign against them in their primaries.
But Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said Gaetz’s threat isn’t likely to deter moderates, such as the lawmakers in New York, where he doubts any far-right Republican primary challenge would succeed.
“Republicans need these seats” to keep the majority, and it would be more difficult for the party to keep them with less centrist-minded candidates, Miringoff said. More valuable to the incumbents is the “bit of cover” a discharge petition provides against blame for the shutdown.
— With assistance from Laura Litvan.