Floor action — rules and agreements, amendment and debate, and final vote — represents the homestretch of the legislative process. More so in the Senate than in the House, this is the most decisive step in determining the shape and fate of the bill.
Adoption of the Rule
The House Rules Committee plays an important role in the legislative process: It announces the rules that govern the floor action of a bill. Like the other committees in Congress, the Rules Committee sometimes conducts hearings and calls witnesses when formulating a rule for a particular piece of legislation. The witnesses are usually members of the committee that is writing the bill.
In order for a House rule to take effect, it must be adopted by a majority of the chamber. If it fails to receive the requisite 218 votes, the Rules Committee can either turn to another rule or let the bill die in committee. Before the vote takes place, the Speaker usually allots one hour of debate between the majority and minority members of the Rules Committee, with the ranking members acting as floor managers (you'll learn more about floor managers in the next section).
Once in a while, either a standing committee will refuse to report on a bill, or it will not be granted a rule from the Rules Committee. In those situations, members can file a discharge petition to discharge the bill from committee and bring it directly to the floor. The rarely used discharge petition can be filed by any member, and requires a majority of signatures. In cases in which a member is secretly opposed to a particular piece of legislation, but hesitant to vote against it for fear of rousing public anger, he can vote against the rule (and thus defeat the bill) without being on the record as having voted against the bill.
As you have learned, the Senate usually dispenses with its formal rules in favor of unanimous consent agreements, which the majority and minority leaders craft before scheduling a piece of legislation. Unanimous consent agreements allow the Senate to debate and amend legislation without the fear of a filibuster derailing the process. The use of unanimous consent agreements has been on the rise in recent years.
Debate and Amendments
Once a bill receives its rule, it goes to the floor for debate and amendment. In both the Senate and the House, floor managers — usually the chairman and ranking minority member of the committee that wrote the bill — are appointed to “quarterback” this process. The majority floor manager tries to shepherd the bill to final passage, while the minority floor manager tries to defeat it. The floor managers usually speak first during debate, and then parcel out the remaining time to members of their teams.
In most situations, floor debate is divided along partisan lines, with Republicans advocating one side and Democrats the other. On issues that split across party lines, however, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the floor managers will work with members of the opposite party to advance their cause.
The debate and amendment process plays different roles in the two chambers. In the House, debate is almost always perfunctory, meaning that rarely does one side influence the outcome of the vote. It mostly serves as an opportunity for members to make their viewpoints known to the public, and in some cases grandstand on the issue.
In the Senate, however, legislation takes its shape on the floor. Senators take advantage of the unlimited debate and amendments to add and subtract provisions, negotiate concessions, and alter language of the final bill. In the upper chamber, members tend to legislate from the floor rather than in committee — a dramatic departure from the process in the House.
Time to Take a Vote
As soon as debate has ended, the bill comes to a final vote. Since 1973, members have used an electronic device that looks like a credit card at one of three dozen voting stations on the chamber floor to record their vote. They have one of three options to select from: Yes, No, or Present. Present is used when a member doesn't want to be on record against a particular bill, but he doesn't want to support it either. Members have fifteen minutes to vote, and an electronic bulletin board near the press gallery keeps a running tally of “yeas” and “nays.”