The House currently stands in recess, subject to the call of the chair. That means nothing's going on on the House floor right now, and that's the case because the Rules committee is meeting to work out the procedure under which the Iraq war supplemental will come to the floor later this afternoon.
It's already late afternoon on Thursday, with just one more week in session for the Congress before it breaks for its July 4th recess. Still pending are the supplemental and the FISA bill, two enormously important pieces of legislation that the Congress definitely wants to dispense with before it breaks.
That puts us in a similar position to last December, when Senator Chris Dodd's filibuster of the FISA bill backed the Senate up against the recess wall, and the bill was eventually pulled so that they could finish up other pressing business before their recess.
Under ordinary circumstances, the deals that have been cut on these two bills would pretty much make them a done deal, especially in the House where there's very little capacity to significantly delay a bill for which there is the support of a determined majority. In the Senate, of course, a 60-vote majority can overcome even the famed filibuster power.
But sometimes, all you really need is a delay, and that is something that an equally determined minority -- even a very small one -- can almost always provide, if they're willing to endure varying degrees of the scorn of their colleagues.
In the House, the ground rules of the debate will be set by the Rules committee, as usual. But within the usual procedure used by the chair to put the Rules committee dictates in place are often numerous opportunities to cause delay, none of which are enough by themselves to significantly slow down important legislation, but which together can buy an hour here, an hour there, and pretty soon, you're talking about real time.
For instance, the House is asked for unanimous consent for various procedural and ministerial functions dozens of times during any given day. Most of them are merely requests routinely granted out of courtesy to colleagues, such as unanimous consent requests to insert written material in the record. But others, though equally routine, are requests for things like dispensing with the reading of bills, which can sometimes take hours all by itself. That's a huge waste of time (even though most Members haven't read the bills), and it's routinely dispensed with... unless somebody's pissed off. And then they utter the magic words, "I object." And then we either sit through hours of bill reading, or have to call everyone out of their meetings and onto the floor for a vote authorizing the dispensation of the reading, or whatever it is that's been objected to.
With two highly controversial bills coming down the pike in two days in the House, and the Senate poised to take them up immediately after, the serial objections of Members who want to slow things down can really add a significant burden to the work of passing them. What's more, you don't even really have to object in the end (though you might force a vote if you do, and that's 15 minutes by itself right there). Instead, you can rise and "reserve the right to object," and sometimes go on at some length about why you're thinking of objecting, casting about for some sort of concession or accommodation from the other side before withdrawing or finally asserting your objection. And if you're not the only one with potential objections, well, this can go on for some time.
But in end, House rules make it nearly impossible to hold matters up for much more than a few hours or a day. Twice that, though, if you've got two bills facing the same threat.
And that brings us to the Senate, where the power of a very small minority to delay is considerably greater, though also limited. But if the supplemental were delayed for a day in the House, thus delaying the FISA bill for another day in the House, you'd find FISA not reaching the Senate until early next week -- unless the Senators gave up their weekend to get to it, which is a distinct possibility.
But if FISA and/or the supplemental didn't get to the Senate until next week, and one Senator attempted to "hold" the bill, the bill's supporters would make a motion to proceed, which can overcome the "hold" (which is itself just another form of objecting to unanimous consent). The motion to proceed, however, is itself subject to a filibuster. And if a Senator did in fact begin a filibuster of the motion to proceed, although a cloturemotion could shut him or her down, the Senate by rule must wait two days before voting on cloture, and even if cloture is invoked, it still allows for 30 additional hours of debate before calling things to an end. That's more than three days that it would take just to get to a vote on the motion to proceed.
And if that weren't enough, the underlying bill may be subject to a filibuster as well, though it's possible that the particular procedures used to move these bill could conceivably preclude it. But if not, you'd be looking at another three days. That puts them right up against their recess.
Now, if that were to happen with both the supplemental and FISA (and no, I haven't heard of any combination of Senators who were willing to do that to either one, let alone both), then you could find yourself approaching the end of next week with neither bill complete, and that recess looming. Could they just wait until after the recess and take it up then? Sure. So what's the value of that?
The only value there is that from early July through early August is the last five legislative weeks before the Congress breaks for the national party conventions. The last chance for the parties to frame their issues going into the big show. And the last chance for Barack Obama to be a Senator.
At this point, Barack Obama is the nominal leader of the Democratic Party. He's opposed to retroactive immunity for the telecoms, and everyone who was opposed to it before this so-called "deal" was struck is, you'll notice, still opposed to it, though some have opted to throw up their hands and pretend they're being forced to vote on it.
But a word from Barack Obama at this point would have the potential to change everything. A word from him saying that this "deal" stands in direct contradiction to the agenda he's bringing to the presidential race would weigh heavily on Majority Leader Harry Reid, who's really only getting heavy pressure from Intelligence committee chairman Jay Rockefeller on this, and thus is likely to be inclined (despite his own opposition to immunity) to grease that particular squeaky wheel. There could be a counterbalance from Judiciary chairman Pat Leahy, but so far, we haven't heard that squeak. He's issued a statement saying he opposes the "deal," but he's not pushing the way Rockefeller is pushing. And though Reid is the Majority Leader, that's as much a service position as it is a leadership position. His membership just isn't telling him no. The voices that are speaking with conviction are the voices saying yes.
Barack Obama, though, is the heavyweight in the arena right now, and his voice, properly applied, could be worth a dozen chairmen. But he's not using it, and in fact, there's no guarantee he ever will.
But get us into next week, pitch a fight in the Senate, back the Congress up against the recess wall, and call in the biggest gun we have, and we just might have that snowflake's chance in the hot place.
UPDATE: And here comes the rule for the supplemental, on the floor now.