The House-Senate Conference Committee Dilemma, Pt. 1

By Stanley Renshon on May 9, 2014

The chances of a Republican Senate as a result of the 2014 congressional elections are increasing. One respected academic analyst puts the chances at 82 percent! As a result, pundits and commentators are beginning to pay attention to the possible implications of that possible switch, of which there are many.

Some ask what would a Mitch McConnell-led Senate would look like and concentrate on such promises as ensuring "a vigorous committee process", "a robust amendment process", and "a decent week's work". Others have focused on the fact that there will still be many Democrats in the Senate and Republicans will need help to gain the 60 votes necessary to break any filibusters.

True as these insights may be, the real importance of Republican Senate majority lies in its ability to pass legislation and develop alternative and competing policy narratives for public debate and consideration.

Consider immigration reform. Obviously, Republicans have to offer their own views of immigration reform in order to give the public an alternative to think about.

And the ability to pass a Republican bill or bills through a Republican-majority Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) will make that opportunity possible.

However, the current impasse between the Senate and the House owes much of its strength to the fear of Republicans that if the House does pass a real immigration reform bill it will trumped in a Senate-House conference committee, and the result will be a bill that resembles the Senate's Democratic immigration bill and not the more reform-minded bill that the House is more likely to pass.

That is why House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, "We're prepared to do whatever it takes to go to conference with a good bill." And the result, in her mind, would be a bill that would "stop the deportations" and provide a "path to citizenship".

That is why Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the leader of the Gang of Eight, whose comprehensive immigration reform legislation passed the Senate in June, said even if the House passes separate bills, those measures could eventually be bundled in a House-Senate conference committee. He was optimistic about the outcome.

And that is why, additionally, those interested in real immigration reform are not reassured by comments from some Republican leaders, like Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who was quoted in 2013 as saying he "feels fairly optimistic about a number of bills going forward and reaching the House floor and going to conference with the Senate bill."

If such a meeting were held now, before the 2014 congressional elections, and before the new Republican-controlled Senate, the conference would consider the Senate's Democratic version of an immigration bill, and whatever House version was passed.

However, that would be very much less of a worry, should Republicans win control of the Senate in October.


For the same reason that a Senate Judiciary Committee operating under the chairmanship of Chuck Grassley would be a very different committee, substantively and procedurally, than the one now chaired by Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)

Next: The House-Senate Conference Committee Dilemma, Pt. 2