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Capitol Report: When is stopping carbon monoxide poisoning and protecting Saudi dissidents controversial? When you’re a House Republican — sometimes

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What do bills to help state and tribal governments distribute carbon monoxide detectors, to reauthorize the agency that tests Olympic athletes against steroids and to protect Saudi Arabian dissidents by limiting arms sales all have in common?

They each passed the House of Representatives by overwhelming bipartisan margins in the last few weeks. And, in each case, all the “no” votes were provided solely by House Republicans.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy defended the “no” votes at his weekly press conference with reporters Thursday.

“I don’t see a problem. A bill could have a really nice name but if you ever read through a bill itself and you gave all the power to Democrats, I’d think there’d be a lot of ‘no’ votes,” he said.

The carbon monoxide detector grants bill, sponsored by Democrat Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, was named the “Nicholas and Zachary Burt Memorial Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention Act,” after two young boys — a 16-month-old and four-year-old — who died from a faulty furnace in 1996 in a house without a detector.

It was also a run-of-the-mill “suspension bill,” so named for being brought up under suspension of the House floor rules, which allows for quick passage by voice vote or, rarely until recently, a roll call vote where it must get two-thirds of the House to pass.

The carbon monoxide detector bill got 362 votes, well above the 290 needed. It also saw 49 “no” votes, all from the Republican side of the aisle. The Anti-Doping Agency reauthorization bill saw 37 “no” votes and the “Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act” saw 71 “no” votes. Again, all from Republicans.

Suspension bills are meant to modest, bipartisan and non-controversial. That’s why they’re used as a sort of legislative filler for the House schedule. They fill in time between more substantive bills under consideration and allow members to brag in press releases they sponsored or voted for them. If puppies and kittens could be voted on, it would be under suspension.

But in recent weeks, Republicans have forced Democrats’ hand on suspension votes, requiring roll call votes, which are time-consuming because of COVID-19 precautions. At the same time, the number of Republicans voting against the bills on average is many times the number of Democrats doing so.

For 19 votes under suspension of the rules in the House in April, an average of 24 Republicans, a bit more than one-tenth of the entire party conference, voted “no,” compared with an average of less than one Democrat.

Over those 19 votes, Republicans voted “no” 458 times, compared with Democrats’ 14 “no” votes. On 15 of the 19 suspension votes, no Democrats at all voted against the bills.

McCarthy said it’s not unusual for there to be at least a few “no” votes on suspensions.

“In any given suspension vote, there’s always some who vote for it and some who vote against it,” McCarthy said.

“Sometimes it comes about funding. Is it too much money? Sometimes about something else. There’s always a rationale and a reason behind it,” he said.

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Not all the bills were insubstantial. One vote was on whether to again put off cuts to Medicare service providers that had been delayed since the enactment of the CARES Act coronavirus aid law in March 2020. That saw the GOP provide all 38 “no” votes.

And a bill to help cannabis-related business
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gain access to the banking system saw 101 “no” votes, again all Republicans.

With COVID-19 precautions making House floor votes a time-consuming affair —the 430 members vote in groups of 87 to avoid crowding on the floor and some vote by proxy — Democrats bristled at the House Republican requests for floor votes on all suspension bills. The tactic has been pushed by the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative and libertarian House Republicans.

“It is unfortunate that some Republican members are using obstruction tactics on the most bipartisan and noncontroversial bills. There are Democrats and Republicans who want to get things done, and we will work around those who do not,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, chairman of the House Rules Committee.

Prior to the pandemic, the House could take many votes in one day, using its electronic voting system to cut vote times down to five or even two minutes. But now, with each vote taking about 30 minutes, voting on suspensions has sometimes meant voting well into the night on bills such as the “504 Modernization and Small Manufacturer Enhancement Act” (16 “no” votes, all Republican) and the “Microloan Improvement Act” (also 16 “no” votes, also all Republican).

That led House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to get a rule change allowing suspension bills to be voted up or down as a group all at once while sending them to the Senate for consideration separately.

“The suspension bills that we’ve been voting on have essentially passed overwhelmingly, with 400 votes or more on almost every one, which means they essentially were non-controversial,” Hoyer said.

Rep. Andy Biggs, the Freedom Caucus chairman, lambasted Hoyer’s action in a YouTube video made in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall with other group members, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican.

“The idea is for transparency to try to slow you down as you try to emasculate the freedoms of Americans. That’s what we’ve been doing and that’s what we’re going to continue to do,” Arizona Republican Biggs said.

McCarthy stood by the group and its approach.

“The controversy is should a bill pass the floor of the House by a simple voice vote? But if you’re elected should you actually vote on the bill itself? And that’s where people have a difference of opinion, some within my conference,” he said.

Capitol Report: Biden’s first big speech to Congress is on Wednesday. Here’s what to expect.

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