Meet the Conference Committee Trying to Keep the U.S. Government Open

January 30, 2019, 6:30 PM UTC

In order for U.S. legislation to become law, it must pass in identical form in the House of Representatives and the Senate. When they disagree, there are four basic options: abandon the bill, strike a backroom deal, keep passing the bill back and forth with amendments until a compromise is found, or form a conference committee to formally come up with an agreement. One of these conference committees is, officially at least, on the spot to try to avert another partial U.S. government shutdown.

1. Why is another shutdown in the hands of Congress?

The conference committee was created as part of the deal to end, at least for now, the 35-day partial shutdown of the government. The U.S. government runs on 12 appropriations bills that must be passed each year by Congress and signed by the president. A stalemate over one of these, the fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security, is what led to the shutdown, with President Donald Trump insisting it include $5.7 billion for a wall or similar barrier on the border with Mexico.

2. Who is on the conference committee?

The Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate choose what are known as conferees. This one will be led by the top appropriators in each party: Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Democratic Representative Nita Lowey of New York and Republican Representative Kay Granger of Texas. Other Senate conferees are Republicans Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, John Hoeven of North Dakota and Roy Blunt of Missouri, plus Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Jon Tester of Montana. On the House side, the other conferees are Democrats Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, David Price of North Carolina, Barbara Lee of California, Henry Cuellar of Texas and Pete Aguilar of California, plus Republicans Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee, Tom Graves of Georgia and Steven Palazzo of Mississippi. In total, that’s nine Democrats and eight Republicans.

3. How free are conferees to exert their own views?

House and Senate leaders from both parties are not planning to give much free rein to this particular conference committee, given the high stakes. They will be directing talks from behind the scenes to ensure the final product is something that both parties can accept and Trump will sign into law.

4. Isn’t this an impossible task?

If any group can find common ground in the bitter dispute over the border wall, this group of lawmakers might be it. Shelby and Leahy, the Republican chairman and Democratic vice chairman of the Senate appropriations panel, had previously said they could find a solution to the shutdown stalemate in a matter of hours if they were allowed to lead the negotiations. Democrats have not ruled out providing funds for fencing along the border, despite their opposition to Trump’s campaign promise of a “wall.” Even Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has called Trump’s idea for a border wall “immoral, ineffective and expensive,” said she would leave the right mix of border security measures “up to our appropriators.”

5. Can I watch the conference committee work?

Though meetings are supposed to be open to the public, conference committees in recent years have held one public meeting and then gone closed doors to do the hard bargaining.

6. What happens after they reach an accord?

A conference report is sent to the House and Senate. The chamber that first requested the conference is the first to decide how to act. The first chamber to consider it can decide to send it back to the committee for further work. But once the first chamber agrees to accept the report as written, the second can only accept or reject the report. Once there’s an approved report, the House requires three working days to consider it before voting and the Senate requires 48 hours, though these waiting periods can be waived.

7. Can the bill be changed before the full House or Senate vote?

No. The bill will be subject to a straight yes-or-no vote in each chamber.