As a rule, one of the great things about being in the majority on Capitol Hill is control of the floor: If a House speaker, for example, doesn’t like a bill, it doesn’t get a vote.
But as regular readers might recall, there’s a notable exception to this rule. They’re called discharge petitions, and they can be used — and have been used on occasion — to circumvent the majority leadership’s position and force a bill onto the floor for a vote.
The basic idea behind the tactic is relatively straightforward: If a simple majority of House members sign on to a discharge petition in support of a specific piece of legislation, the measure advances to the floor for a vote, whether the sitting speaker likes it or not.
House Democrats on Tuesday pressed forward with a Plan B to raise the federal borrowing limit without any strings attached, as the Treasury Department warned the nation was inching closer to its first debt default in history. Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., sent a letter to colleagues informing them that Democrats are taking steps to give Congress another option to avert a debt default as President Joe Biden rejects demands by House Republicans for deep spending cuts.
“The filing of a debt ceiling measure to be brought up on the discharge calendar preserves an important option,” Jeffries wrote in his letter. “It is now time for MAGA Republicans to act in a bipartisan manner to pay America’s bills without extreme conditions.”
In some circles, this has long been seen as the safety valve. Sure, radicalized House Republicans and the GOP leaders who do their bidding are threatening to impose a deliberate economic catastrophe unless their demands are met, but a discharge petition offers a way to work around them. If every House Democrat signs the measure — a scenario that’s fairly easy to believe — the minority party would simply need five pragmatic Republicans to partner with them.
At that point, the House could pass a clean debt ceiling bill — the kind GOP lawmakers have repeatedly supported during times of Republican administrations — effectively diffusing the default bomb. We could all then get on with our lives.
The solution is so simple and obvious there have been a variety of reports in recent months that have described a discharge petition as the “escape hatch“ and the “off-ramp“ in response to the Republican-imposed crisis. Jeffries recently added that the whole mess would go away with just five “reasonable” GOP lawmakers.
So, is this the solution we’ve been waiting for? Is it finally time to exhale? As much as I’d love to answer those questions in the affirmative, I’m afraid it’s not that simple.
First, to execute such a plan, there are complex procedural hurdles that would require an enormous amount of time. As a separate NBC News report explained in January, a discharge petition requires a bill to be stranded in committee for 30 legislative days — not to be confused with calendar days — followed by seven legislative days on the House calendar. At that point, the members behind the measure can force the speaker to hold a vote within two legislative days.
According to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the deadline is about a month away. There doesn’t appear to be enough time to jump through the legislative hoops necessary to use the discharge petition effectively.
But even if those procedural hurdles weren’t in the way, Democrats would still need five House Republicans to sign onto the petition — and to assume they exist would be a mistake. Indeed, the GOP’s so-called “moderates” voted in lock step in support of their party’s right-wing hostage note last week, with literally none of the party’s alleged “centrists” breaking ranks.
If only five Republican pragmatists were to have said last week, “Threatening to harm Americans is wrong and we won’t be a part of it,” the crisis would’ve come to a rather abrupt end. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy simply wouldn’t have had the votes to move forward with the extortion scheme.
But the “reasonable” GOP members voted with their extremist brethren. There’s simply no reason to think they’re prepared to work with Democrats to derail the entire scheme.
Complicating matters further, even if five House Republicans were to somehow come to their senses before it’s too late, such a bill would then go to the Senate, where it would face a filibuster from the Senate’s GOP minority.
As much as I’d like to see a discharge petition rescue the nation, it’s probably best to start focusing attention on a possible Plan C.
Update: MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, on last night's episode of "The Last Word," noted that a relevant bill was dropped in committee weeks ago, opening the door to possible advancement before the deadline. Finding House Republicans willing to endorse the discharge petition, however, remains a high hurdle.
This post revises our related earlier coverage.