Congressional procedure is painfully opaque. It’s difficult for me to determine Senate procedure on a conference committee report and that is making it hard for me to predict what is going to happen next on the stimulus bill. So, let me lay out what I know and also what I’m not sure about.

The House passed their stimulus bill a couple of weeks ago. It was a good bill and would have made a fine final product. It cost about $820 billion. The Senate has made numerous amendments to the House bill. Some of those amendments were good, like adding a lot of money for the National Institute of Health. Others were not so good, like stripping out a lot of education spending. In the end, however, the bills will both wind up costing around $820 billion. The big difference is that the Senate version includes $70 billion to address the Alternative Minimum Tax issue. So, the Senate version has roughly $70 billion more in tax cuts and roughly $70 billion less in direct stimulative spending. I think almost all economists would agree that the House version is better, but neither of them will become law.

What happens now is that the House and Senate will elect conferees who will meet together in a conference committee. They will work together to make one piece of legislation that both houses can support. And then those bills will go back to each house for a final vote.

We know that the House has the votes to pass anything. But the Senate usually requires 60 votes. The deal that was struck in the Senate tonight includes Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and, Arlen Specter. But those votes could evaporate if the conference committee restores a lot of the funding that was cut. The question is, how aggressive can the Democrats be in the conference (which they control) without blowing up the deal in the Senate?

Now, read this, and tell me what you make of it…

Once a bill has been passed by a conference committee, it goes directly to the floor of both houses for a vote, and is not open to further amendment. In the first House to consider the conference, a Member may move to recommit the bill to the conference committee. But once the first House has passed the conference report, the conference committee is dissolved, and the second House to act can no longer recommit the bill to conference.

Conference reports are privileged. And in the Senate, a motion to proceed to a conference report is not debatable, although Senators can generally filibuster the conference report itself. The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 limits debate on conference reports on budget reconciliation bills to 10 hours in the Senate, so Senators cannot filibuster those conference reports.

Filibusters are poorly understood. The simplest way to think about filibusters is that the Senate operates by the principle of unanimous consent. If even one member of the Senate objects to a motion, then there is no unanimous consent and the Senate must move to proceed despite the lack of unanimous consent. It requires sixty votes to proceed when unanimous consent is lacking. That is all a filibuster is. It is a situation where at least 41 members refuse to override the dissent of a single member.

When the Majority Leader wants to have a vote on a bill, he must first ask for consent to proceed to the bill. If that is denied then a filibuster has occurred. The Republicans can block almost anything with this procedure but they can’t block consideration of a conference report. That would suggest that passing the conference report in the Senate would require a mere fifty votes, and not the sixty needed to pass the bill before it went to conference.

Yet, the above source says ‘Senators can generally filibuster the conference report itself.’ I’m not sure what that means. Once the bill is under consideration, it only requires a majority to pass. If the Republicans cannot block consideration of the bill, it’s over. The Democrats have 58 votes (soon to be 59) and they can only be defeated if they need 60 votes. If anyone can clear this up for me, I would appreciate it.

I think the Dems can pass their conference report with whatever they want once the originating bill passes with 60 votes in the Senate. Am I wrong?

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