WASHINGTON -- Whatever happened to the housing reauthorization bill?

The answer illustrates the chronic procedural problems plaguing the U.S. Senate.

Just a few weeks ago, the bill, which would renew a host of federal housing programs set to expire this year, seemed to be sailing along to speedy enactment. In June, the House and Senate banking committees, which have jurisdiction over housing matters, easily approved their respective reauthorization measures. The full House passed the House panel measure overwhelmingly and with little debate on July 25.

At that point, House and Senate housing aides were looking beyond Senate passage to the conference that would reconcile the two bills. They even raised the possibility that the conference could take place before Congress' annual summer recess begins in mid-August.

Chances of an early August conference appeared to increase when the Senate leadership announced last week that it was pushing the start of the recess to Aug. 19 from Aug. 12. The aides reasoned those extra days would give them plenty of time to complete work on the housing measure.

But the housing aides were counting their chickens, or balls, before they hatched. The aides overlooked the fact that the incubator called the Senate was and still is having mechanical difficulties, leaving the housing bill stalled there for the time being.

How can a bill with such a high level of bipartisan support become bogged down in the Senate? Have 51 senators said they will vote against it? Hardly. The problem, according to lobbyists, is that a couple of senators have raised objections to parts of the measure. The lobbyists have tried to find out who those senators are, but committee aides aren't talking.

So housing aides are now resigned to beginning the conference after Congress returns in September.

In Senate parlance, an objection at this stage of the process is called a "hold." When a senator "has a hold" on a bill cleared for floor action, that means the senator will not allow it to come to a vote until the problem with the bill has been resolved.

How is it that one senator can hold up a whole bill? To answer that question, one needs to understand the Senate's rules for debate, which are extremely loose. Any senator has the right to talk as long as he or she wants on any subject. The extreme form of such Senate speech is known as the "filibuster," and has traditionally been used by senators to block passage of bills they object to.

But filibusters hardly ever happen anymore. The average American may have an image of Jimmy Stewart struggling to stay on his feet as he talks into the night on the Senate floor in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," but that idea is outdated.

The 1990s version of the filibuster is the hold. No longer does a senator have to go through the motions of the filibuster. The senator only needs to announce to the leadership that he or she intends to filibuster the bill for action on the measure to grind to a halt.

To be sure, the hold process does make things less messy in the Senate: Objections to bills are worked out behind the scenes, and the Senate's time is not taken up by hours of speeches designed to slow the chamber's work.

But the leadership, by allowing the filibuster process to be short-circuited, has permitted an explosion in the number of times that bills are held up by a single objecting senator. Some Capitol Hill watchers have suggested that the Senate leadership start calling the bluff of some of these senators, and force them to undertake full-fledged, old-fashioned filibusters if they are adamant in their objections to bills. That way, a lot of holds would probably never materialize.

Since the senators with holds on the housing bill remain anonymous, there is no way of knowing what kinds of complaints they have. But given the noncontroversial nature of the measure over all, it is likely that they have problems with only one or another minor portion of the bill -- certainly not something for which they would be willing to speechify for hours in an attempt to block passage.

But since the Senate leadership has given no indication that it wants to see any modern-day Jimmy Stewarts taking the floor, the housing bill remains stalled. In time, the problems will be worked out, the objecting senators placated, and the bill passed -- but only after a weeks-long delay that was probably unnecessary.

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