WASHINGTON – House Democrats are determined to cast an election-year spotlight on Republican opposition to raising the minimum wage and overhauling immigration laws.
To try to accomplish that in the GOP-controlled House, Democrats are planning to rely on an infrequently used, rarely successful tactic known as a "discharge petition."
It requires the minority party – in this case, Democrats, who are unable to dictate the House agenda – to persuade some two dozen Republicans to defy their leadership, join Democrats and force a vote on setting the federal minimum wage at $10.10 an hour.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Democrats will push the wage issue when Congress returns from its break Feb. 24. Forcing a vote on a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws could occur in a few months.
Democratic leaders argue that a majority of Americans favor both steps, which are priorities for President Barack Obama, and say the House GOP is the obstacle. Republicans say Democrats are embarking on an approach that they know has little chance of success in an attempt to circumvent the will of the GOP-led House.
The odds are daunting for Democrats in what clearly is political maneuvering ahead of the elections this fall.
Some questions and answers on how it works.
Q: What does a discharge petition do?
A: It allows the minority or opposition party to bypass the House speaker and get a vote.
First, 217 members — one more than half the House's current membership of 432 — have to sign a petition. A motion to consider the wage issue would then be placed on the legislative calendar, but it can't be acted on for at least seven days. Any lawmaker can then call it up but only on the second or fourth Monday of the month. The motion is debated and if the House passes it, then lawmakers would consider and vote on the bill.
Currently there are 232 Republicans, 200 Democrats and three vacancies in the House. All 200 Democrats would have to sign the petition, but Democrats would have a tough time getting 17 Republicans to join them.
Signing a discharge petition would be a breach of loyalty for Republicans, certain to draw the wrath of the caucus, and a rebuke of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Republicans largely oppose any increase in the minimum wage. They say it's an issue left to the states and that it could slow hiring in a struggling economy.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, acknowledged that Democrats are unlikely to sway Republicans. Yet he also provided a preview of one of his party's arguments on this issue.
"I don't think we're ever confident that we're going to get 18 Republicans to sign a discharge petition, but we apparently have 30 or 40 that are known over here," Hoyer said at a news conference this past week at the party's retreat in Cambridge, Md. "Our expectation is if they want to make sure that working people have an incentive to work, they will pay them to do so a wage that does not leave them in poverty."
Q: What about immigration? A number of House Republicans back a comprehensive approach. Would they sign a discharge petition?
A: Highly unlikely. Republicans still are unwilling to break ranks with the party and Boehner, despite the distinctly different political forces on the issue.
Immigration overhaul has the support of an unusual coalition that includes some traditional backers of the GOP. They include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and business groups, religious organizations such as the U.S. Catholic Bishops, evangelicals and labor unions.
A few Republicans have expressed support for a comprehensive bill similar to the Senate-passed measure and have pleaded for the House to act this year. They worry about the political implications in their swing districts back home. Yet it would be a remarkable step for some of the more moderate lawmakers from California and Florida to abandon Boehner.
Boehner has come out with principles on immigration that call for legal status for some of the 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally and has expressed support for a piecemeal approach to the issue. Last week, however, the speaker all but ruled out the House acting on legislation this year, blaming GOP distrust of Obama to enforce any new law.
On the notion of a discharge petition, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said, "This scheme has zero chance of success. A clear majority in the House understands that the massive Senate-passed bill is deeply flawed."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, a major player on the bipartisan Senate measure, recently pushed the idea of a discharge petition, but the New York Democrat is unlikely to sway the nearly two dozen House Republicans necessary to sign on.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., made clear how Democrats will frame the issue for the Republicans who want immigration overhaul.
"Talk is one thing; actually doing something is another. And I'm sure they'll have a chance between now and November to let their constituents know whether they're serious on immigration reform, the comprehensive one, or not," Van Hollen said.
Q: A discharge petition sounds like a tough sell. Has it worked recently?
The discharge petition worked in 1986, forcing a vote on a gun rights bill, and in 2002, ensuring a vote on campaign finance legislation.
The difficulty for a discharge petition in the current political climate was never more evident than last fall in the midst of the 16-day partial government shutdown. Even though several Republicans said they wanted to vote on a spending bill with no strings attached, they rejected the idea that they would join forces with the Democrats.