- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 15, 2009

If it were just up to the House of Representatives, Barack Obama already would rank as one of the most transformative presidents of the past half-century.

With the 223-202 vote Friday to approve a major overhaul of the government financial regulatory machinery, the House has passed what arguably are the three most ambitious to-do items of Mr. Obama’s domestic reform list - health care, energy and, now, banking — just 11 months after Mr. Obama took office.

The Senate, by contrast, is still struggling toward a final vote on a health care bill, with the fights on financial reform and a global warming bill put off until sometime next year.

The discrepancy comes despite the fact that the Republican minority in the House — 177 seats out of a total of 435 — is, in percentage terms, almost exactly the same size as the Republican Party’s 40-seat minority in Senate: 40.6 percent.

“As is often the case, we are waiting on the other body to act,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said Friday on the House floor when questioned by Republicans about the chamber’s holiday work schedule.

The House’s daily schedule in recent weeks often has consisted entirely of the equivalent of parliamentary thumb-twiddling, approving resolutions honoring local Little League teams and renaming post offices while waiting for the Senate to act.

It’s a dynamic, said Deputy Historian of the House Fred W. Beuttler, that’s been going on “for generations.”

“Just in the nature of the two institutions, the House tends to get its work done faster, and you’re seeing that very specifically in what has played out so far this year,” he said. “The essence of the Senate is the filibuster, while the essence of the House is the Rules Committee, which controls the debate and is entirely an arm of the majority and the speaker.”

Even beyond the big-ticket items, the House has proved unusually nimble compared to its smaller counterpart.

House Democratic leaders, for instance, were able to pass 12 of the 13 annual appropriations spending bills by midsummer. But because the Senate was unable to match that pace, Congress was forced to pass two stopgap continuing resolutions since Oct. 1 to keep Cabinet agencies and departments in business. The stalled bills finally were wrapped up in a $1.1 trillion “omnibus” spending measure approved by the Senate on Sunday.

The 13th and final appropriations bill — for the Defense Department and related programs — is ready for a House vote this week, while the Senate bill managers are still struggling to clear it for the floor.

“I want to go home for Christmas,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, told the Hill newspaper.

The reason for the sharp disparity in productivity is no secret: Senate rules, by design, give the minority, as well as unhappy members of the majority, far more scope to slow down the legislative calendar.

On financial regulatory reform, for instance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was able to set the terms of the debate, control which amendments could be offered on the floor, wrap up the debate and hold a vote in the space of two days. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, her Democratic counterpart across the Capitol, has far less power to set deadlines and force votes.

With Senate Republicans often voting in lockstep opposition, Mr. Reid cannot afford to lose a single member of his caucus of 58 Democrats and two independents to break filibusters or move items such as health care or climate change through the pipeline.

A health care overhaul bill, which the House passed in early November, is bogged down on the Senate floor, with Mr. Reid calling a string of rare weekend sessions in hopes of passing a bill by Christmas.

The climate change bill, pushed through on a cliffhanger vote by Mrs. Pelosi and her aides in June, has not even had a committee vote in the Senate, and no final action is expected there before spring.

The financial regulatory overhaul legislation approved by the House on Friday is also early in the committee phase on the Senate side, with no hard projection on when — or if — a vote might come.

Mr. Beuttler, the historian, pointed to a vote Friday ahead of the financial regulatory overhaul debate as a classic example of the House’s get-it-done machinery in operation.

A standing House rule requires agreement by a two-thirds majority of the members to waive a prohibition on voting on a bill on the same day it is introduced on the floor. Democrats lack a two-thirds majority, but it takes only a majority of 218 votes to “waive” the requirement for the waiver and move on.

By a vote of 239-183, that’s exactly what the House voted to do.

“That’s something you couldn’t dream of doing in the Senate,” Mr. Beuttler observed.

While the House can move faster than the Senate, it often does not, as House members resist taking politically difficult votes when there’s no guarantee that the other chamber will follow suit. Some House Democrats, particularly from oil- and coal-producing states, questioned Mrs. Pelosi’s push for a vote on global warming over the summer.

The bill, which includes a contentious “cap-and-trade” system to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, faces a long, slow slog in the Senate, leaving exposed House Democrats to explain their vote without being able to point to any concrete accomplishments.

The disparity also has led to complaints in both chambers.

Mr. Reid’s determination to produce a health care bill this week has members of both parties fuming, in particular over the almost nonstop workload for a body used to three- and four-day workweeks and regular, lengthy recesses. Congressional Quarterly reported this week that Democratic and Republican senators — including Mr. Reid — have had to cancel holiday-themed fundraisers because of the need to be available for floor votes.

A major congressional delegation that was to travel to the Copenhagen climate summit later this week is also uncertain because both House and Senate members may not be able to get away.

In the House Democratic caucus and in liberal political circles, the Senate stalling has sparked renewed cries for changes to the filibuster system, where in essence the majority needs 60 votes to pass any significant legislation.

Outspoken Rep. Alan Grayson, Florida Democrat, even has circulated a petition in the House to urge Mr. Reid to modify the filibuster rule to require just 55 votes to cut off debate.

“Our party was elected in 2008 with a mandate from the country for major change, from saving the economy to fixing health care,” Mr. Grayson wrote.

“Since then, the House of Representatives has worked hard to pass this ambitious agenda, only to see it stalled by no-mongering Republicans in the Senate. Just the list of bills passed by the House and now waiting in the Senate runs to three pages, single-spaced.”

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