The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) abruptly cancelled a business meeting and legislative hearing scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on May 10 when the Senate’s two-hour rule was invoked by the Minority Whip.
The procedural wrangling resulted from President Donald Trump’s unexpected May 9 firing of FBI Director James Comey and a Democratic desire for Republicans and the Trump administration to support an independent investigation of the president’s possible ties with Russia, which Comey was investigating before his dismissal.
According to sources, as a procedural rule, the Senate Majority Leader passes a Unanimous Consent (UC) agreement every morning that allows committees to meet starting two hours after the Senate convenes. The morning of the most recent SCIA hearing, however, the Minority Whip objected to the UC agreement, making it against the rules for Senate committees to conduct official business more than two hours after that point. Since the morning’s gavel had sounded at 9:30 a.m. on May 10, this meant that all scheduled hearings had to be concluded no later than 11:30 a.m.
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Although Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), chair of SCIA, filed a motion to hold the hearing nevertheless, it drew a Democratic objection, cancelling not only Hoeven’s hearing, but effectively all SCIA hearings until further notice given that they are usually scheduled for Wednesday afternoons.
The abrupt motion sent SCIA aides scrambling. The obscurity of the procedure resulted in a crash course for aides on how to accommodate scheduled witnesses without violating Senate rules. Given that some witnesses had travelled from as far away as Alaska and Arizona, sending them home unheard was viewed as untenable.
Aides ultimately devised an informal “listening session,” which was held at 3 p.m. on May 10, to discuss four Senate bills at stake: S. 458 to support the education of Indian children; S. 691 to extend Federal recognition to the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe—Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, the Rappahannock Tribe, Inc., the Monacan Indian Nation, and the Nansemond Indian Tribe; S. 825 to provide for the conveyance of certain property to the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium located in Sitka, Alaska; and S. 772 to amend the PROTECT Act to make Indian tribes eligible for AMBER Alert grants.
While an interesting phenomenon, a UC is rarely objected to, and there is growing concern that this move may be an indication of an impending Senate stalemate in the post-Comey era. With that tension expected to endure until the multiple investigations regarding the Trump team’s interaction with the Russians are concluded, this procedural hack could become a useful tool in the hands of the Democratic minority to make their point on their confidence in the Trump government.
But habitual use of this strategy will essentially grind the Senate to a halt, which portends poorly for getting business done on the Hill this summer. On May 10 alone, 13 committee meetings were cancelled.
Until a UC for committee meetings is raised without objection – and few people expect that to happen any time soon – no Senate committees are allowed to conduct any official business, so nothing will move to the Senate floor for a vote.