This was a vote on whether to take up the “rule” setting the terms for consideration of the economic stimulus package developed by the House Democrats. Republicans opposed the stimulus package because it emphasized spending increases over tax reductions, and were using procedural tactics to delay moving the bill through the legislative process. Forcing a roll call vote on the resolution approving the taking up of the rule on the stimulus bill was one such tactic.
During the debate, Rep. Stearns (R-FL) raised a point of order. He argued that the terms of the rule violated the Congressional Budget Act because it allowed for consideration of the stimulus package legislation even though the legislation contained a prohibited “unfunded mandate”. An unfunded mandate is a provision in any federal legislation that requires states to spend money on a program, without providing federal money to pay for that program. In this case, the unfunded mandate noted by Rep. Stearns was a provision of the stimulus package that would require the states to spend additional amounts for unemployment insurance. The chair ruled that the decision on the point or order would be made by the House when it voted on the question of whether or not the rule should be considered.
Rep. Slaughter (D-NY), the chair of The House Rules Committee, responded to Rep. Stearns’ point of order by saying that “(T)echnically this point of order is about whether or not to consider this rule and ultimately the underlying (stimulus) bill. In reality, it’s about trying to block this bill without any opportunity for debate and without any opportunity for an up-or-down vote on the legislation itself. I think that is wrong and hope we (can) consider this important legislation on its merits and not kill it on a procedural motion.” She referred to the point of order as “dilatory” and a “red herring”, and argued that “(T)hose who oppose (the stimulus bill) can vote against it on final passage.”
Under usual House procedures, before a bill such as that containing the economic stimulus package can be considered, the House must first approve a resolution containing the “rule” for that bill. The rule provides the terms under which the legislation will be considered. Those terms include such things as whether only specifically enumerated amendments may be offered to the legislation, and the time that will be allotted to the Democrats and to the Republicans for debating the legislation. Prior to the House taking up the rule, there is a procedural vote on whether the rule itself should even be considered. That vote is often a formality. That was not the case in this instance.
During the debate, Stearns also made a substantive argument against consideration of the rule, based in part on the fact that 206 amendments that had been proposed to the legislation, but the rule permitted only eleven to be offered on the House floor. Stearns noted that House Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) had characterized the process of developing a stimulus package as “bipartisan, open and transparent”, but he then claimed that many Republican-supported amendments were dropped “arbitrarily” and “capriciously”, and “(S)o this . . . package is not bipartisan.”
The vote on whether to consider the rule that would set the terms for the debate on the economic stimulus legislation was 240 ayes and 174 nays, primarily along party lines. All 240 “aye” votes were cast by Democratic Members. Five other House Democrats joined with all the Republican Members and voted “nay”. The “yes” vote allowed the House to take up the rule setting the terms for consideration of the economic stimulus legislation.