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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Lawmakers make end run around Speaker Johnson on disaster bill



House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) arrives for a news conference outside the Capitol in Wash-ington, May 16, 2024. A successful bipartisan effort to force a vote on disaster relief is just the latest example of how procedural norms have been upended in the House. (Tierney L. Cross/The New York Times)

By Carl Hulse


A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House has pulled off a rare feat: drawing enough support through a procedural maneuver known as a discharge petition to steer around the leadership and force a bill to the floor for just the third time in more than 20 years.


The success of the tactic underscores how tenuous a hold Republicans have on the House given their minuscule majority, and how divisions within the GOP have fueled the emergence of a bipartisan coalition determined to get things done amid the dysfunction.


In this case, Democrats and Republicans are attempting an end run around Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., to force a vote on legislation that would provide tax relief to victims of disasters across the country. The effort succeeded through a combination of backing from conservative Republicans from states hit hard by disasters and Democrats once again flexing their muscle in the narrowly divided House.


It is the latest example of how, during the chaotic congressional session, the House has deviated from traditional procedural norms.


The discharge petition was created as a last-ditch check on the power of the majority party. It provides a way to bring legislation backed by a majority of members of the House to a vote — even if leaders oppose doing so. Such petitions are historically a tool of the minority party, and they rarely succeed because members of the majority are reluctant to risk reprisals by taking on their own leaders and usurping control of the floor from the speaker.


The last one to succeed was in 2015 on legislation to renew the Export-Import Bank. The time before that was in 2002 on major campaign finance legislation.


But House Republicans in recent months have shown a distinct willingness to challenge their leaders, and Democrats have been only too happy to take advantage of the GOP turmoil to put their stamp on the legislative agenda.


In this case, Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., pushed forward with a discharge petition to secure a vote on a popular part of a stalled tax overhaul package — legislation that would ease the ability to deduct disaster losses from income tax — after failing to win a commitment from top Republicans to put it on the floor.


“My district got hit by Hurricane Ian in October of 2022, and enough is enough,” Steube said in an interview. “I kept getting stonewalled by my own leadership.”


Democrats kept an eye on his petition and began lobbying their own members to sign on when they saw that enough Republicans were on board to give it a chance. They pushed it to the necessary 218 signatures Wednesday afternoon, punctuating the effort by making sure that Rep. Pat Ryan, a Democrat facing a tough reelection fight in a New York district hit by flooding, provided the crucial last signature. In the end, 29 Republicans joined 189 Democrats.


“This legislation saves Americans money and helps communities recovering from disasters, “said Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, the No. 2 Democrat who encouraged her colleagues to sign the petition. “It is surprising to me that the leadership of the GOP is ignoring these opportunities and spending their time showing up at the Trump trial in matching outfits or focused on appeasing the most extreme element of their conference.”


The speaker’s office had no immediate comment, but the disaster legislation was expected to potentially reach the floor in the next week or two. Under House rules, once the signature threshold has been reached, seven legislative days must pass before Steube can signal his intention to require a vote. The speaker would then be expected to set a time for consideration of the discharge within two days under a complicated and time-consuming process meant to discourage such efforts.


Discharge petitions were recently considered as ways to force legislation to avoid a federal default last year and to overcome leadership resistance to a vote on military assistance to Ukraine. But Re-publicans did not break ranks, and those bills eventually passed anyway, backed mostly by Democrats.


With the House in disarray for much of the past two years, the usual procedural traditions have been turned on their head with the ouster of one speaker and an unsuccessful attempt to push out Johnson. To register their dissatisfaction with their leaders, far-right conservatives have opposed the usually party-line rules to bring bills to the floor while Democrats have turned around and supported those measures on crucial votes — usually anathema for the minority. Democrats also recently provided the votes to table the motion aimed at removing Johnson, thus rescuing his speakership. They said their backing of the discharge petition showed another avenue to building bipartisan coalitions.


“Maybe this is another message that Democrats came to work and you might want to work with us,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., one of the chief proponents of the tax provisions after wildfires in his district.


Backers of the bill said it would provide relief for taxpayers in 45 states, including those devastated by hurricanes, flooding, wildfires and the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment. But House passage of the legislation would not guarantee that it became law. The broader tax package has stalled in the Senate, and it is unclear whether the separate disaster legislation would be brought to the floor.


Steube acknowledged that he could not control the Senate, but urged that his bill be put on the House floor.


“Floridians have waited since 2022 to receive tax relief from Hurricane Ian, and many other Americans have waited just as long for relief from other disasters,” he said. “I look forward to swift passage of my legislation on the House floor and urge expeditious consideration in the Senate.”

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