The House-Senate Conference Committee Dilemma, Pt. 2

By Stanley Renshon on May 12, 2014

There are no formal rules that outline how House-Senate conference meetings are required to be organized. However, the procedures that have developed over time are quite complex.

What follows here are some general considerations, with their major implications for passing a real immigration reform bill.

The dynamics of a House-Senate conference committee are dramatically different given differences in timing. Should Republicans win control of the Senate in 2014, and be able to withstand Democratic pressure to sign on to their immigration bill immediately, the chances for real immigration reform substantially improve.

Routinely, the principals from each chamber or their respective staffs conduct pre-conference meetings so as to expedite the bargaining process when the conference formally convenes. Informal practice also determines who will be the overall conference chair (each chamber has its own leader in conference).

According to legislative procedure, "The presiding officer formally appoints the Senate's conferees. (The House Speaker names the House conferees.) Conferees are traditionally drawn from the committee of jurisdiction, but conferees representing other Senate interests may also be appointed."

There would obviously be a great difference in a committee appointed by Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and one appointed by Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

There is also an obvious difference between having two Republican chairs of a House-Senate conference committee, one from the House and one from the Senate, and a conference committee now, which would pit a Republican chair (from the House), appointed by Rep. Boehner, and a chair from the Senate appointed by Reid.

Moreover, "For standing committees that seldom meet in conference, the choice of who will chair the conference is generally resolved by the conference leaders from each chamber. The decision on when and where to meet and for how long are a few prerogatives of the chair, who consults on these matters with his or her counterpart from the other body."

Legislative procedure noted above requires that, "Once the two chambers go to conference, the respective House and Senate conferees bargain and negotiate to resolve the matters in bicameral disagreement."

Obviously, there is also a enormous difference between negotiating a Republican House version of immigration reform against the Democratic Senate bill that passed in 2013, which would happen if the conference were held this year, and a negotiation between two Republicans bills, passed by the House and Senate respectively, were conference to take place in 2015, should the GOP win Senate control.

According to the Senate guide, noted above, "Resolution is embodied in a conference report, signed by a majority of Senate conferees and House conferees. ... The conference report must be agreed to by both chambers before it is cleared for presidential consideration. In the Senate, conference reports are usually brought up by unanimous consent at a time agreed to by the party leaders and floor managers. Because conference reports are privileged, if any Senator objects to the unanimous consent request, a non-debatable motion can be made to take up the conference report."

Note that, "Approval of the conference report itself is subject to extended debate, but conference reports are not open to amendment." They can, however, be tabled, postponed, withdrawn, or rejected. Again, the procedures that have governed each of these elements are complex enough to support a number of parliamentarians.

However, the bottom line for Republicans and real immigration reform appears to be the following:

Wait until the congressional elections are over and a new Republican-controlled Senate majority, if that happens, is seated. Then pass real immigration reform.

Next: Passing Immigration Reform: Republican and Democratic Dilemmas, Pt. 1