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In CNN's April 8, 2022 Applause erupts in Senate chamber after Brown Jackson is confirmed there is this little vignette between US Vice President Kamala Harris and the Senate Majority Leader Chuck Shumer that seems to take place after some applause erupts and so I'm guessing is more formal procedure than anything else, but I'm clueless what these words mean:

Harris: Under the previous order, the motion to reconsider is considered made and laid upon the table, and the president will immediately be notified of the Senate's action.

Schumer: Madam president, very happily, I note the absence of a quorum.

[laughter]

Question(s):

  1. What do these mean and what is their effect?
  2. Does Harris, the president of the Senate's "the president will immediately be notified" refer to Harris themselves, or to the "other president" (i.e. Biden)?
  3. What's so funny about "I note the absence of a quorum"?

screenshot from CNN's April 8, 2022 "Applause erupts in Senate chamber after Brown Jackson is confirmed" https://youtu.be/rJSy9BxuL5s?t=60

3 Answers 3

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  1. To "lay [a measure] upon the table" (or to "table a motion") means to set it aside from debate or consideration in the present moment. Sometimes to be taken up later, other times to be forgotten/ignored. The language "I note the absence of a quorum" invokes a quorum call.
  2. This refers to Biden. The Senate's action is in regard to the nomination of someone to office, and so the end product of that process is either the Senate's consent, or their dissent towards the nomination. Either way, the nominating executive is going to be told what happened.
  3. Generally speaking, but true in this case, deliberative bodies cannot perform business without a quorum. What constitutes a quorum is different body to body, and possibly issue to issue, but a quorum is whatever number of members need to be present for the body to legitimately conduct business. If a quorum is absent, then the body cannot do business, and things like debate must stop.

The joke isn't "I note the absence of a quorum." The joke is that he does so "very happily." As noted in the comments, in addition to closing Senate business for the day - the close of business on this Thursday in particular begins the Senate's two-week Easter break; meaning many of the Senators still present are about to go on vacation.

This is parliamentary procedure for, roughly, "Oh thank God, we can go home now."

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  • 2
    I can't speak to what people find funny, specifically. But the empty seats are on the "right" side of the house, representing that Republican senators are largely absent in the moment. Apr 7 at 20:14
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    It's probably worth commenting (since it's not immediately relevant to the US-based answer) that in British English, tabling a motion is exactly the opposite: the motion is brought forward for debate. An informal way of "putting it away" so it isn't debated is to shelve it. Apr 8 at 7:17
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    Note that also, the quorum is presumed until asked for, so it seems to me (I haven't watched it), that they did all their business and then Schumer goes "oh oopsie we don't have a quorum we hAvE tO gO hOmE" and that's the joke Apr 8 at 14:16
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    It would be a bit weird for Harris to say "The president will immediately be notified..." if she were talking about herself. Though a similar thing did happen at the beginning of the current administration... Apr 8 at 19:49
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    @DarrelHoffman Judges often say "the court" when talking about themselves. Parties often refer to themselves in the third person ("Prosecution rests", "Defense objects"), so it's not unusual in formal situations for people to talk about themselves in the third person. Apr 8 at 20:33
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To further explain the "motion to reconsider" verbiage, here's rule XIII.1 of the Senate Rules:

When a question has been decided by the Senate, any Senator voting with the prevailing side or who has not voted may, on the same day or on either of the next two days of actual session thereafter, move a reconsideration; and if the Senate shall refuse to reconsider such a motion entered, or if such a motion is withdrawn by leave of the Senate, or if upon reconsideration the Senate shall affirm its first decision, no further motion to reconsider shall be in order unless by unanimous consent. Every motion to reconsider shall be decided by a majority vote, and may be laid on the table without affecting the question in reference to which the same is made, which shall be a final disposition of the motion.

This rather verbose rule can be loosely paraphrased as follows:

  1. After the Senate votes to do something (in this case, to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's nomination to the Supreme Court), anyone who either voted in favor of doing that thing or abstained can make a "motion to reconsider," which (in most cases) has the practical effect of forcing a do-over vote. The rule does put a three-day time limit on such motions, but it's still rather annoying to have to hold a vote over again just because some senator changed their mind.
  2. You can permanently kill a motion to reconsider by tabling it (in American usage, "tabling" something means to set it aside to be considered later, or more commonly, never; this is directly opposed to the British usage of the term). Nobody can raise another motion to reconsider after that.
  3. Not explicitly stated in the rule, but implied: If you don't want do-over votes, you can move to reconsider and then immediately move to table. Therefore, it has become common practice for the majority leader to do this every time the Senate passes anything.
  4. The phrase "without objection" refers to unanimous consent. In response to this phrase, any senator in the room can jump in and say "I object to laying the motion to reconsider on the table," at which point the Senate now has to have a proper vote on the issue. But that would be entirely pointless because the Senate just had a vote on the underlying issue, so nobody ever bothers objecting.
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  • To simplify further, the point of tabling the motion to consider is to ensure that the original vote stands.
    – Barmar
    Apr 8 at 14:01
  • "that would be entirely pointless because the Senate just had a vote on the underlying issue" It'd give the minority party three days to try to flip someone to change their mind.
    – nick012000
    Apr 9 at 6:56
  • @nick012000 So you're saying someone could object as an open invitation for the other side to start offering them deals (not to say bribes)? I think Kevin's "pointless" statement stands, though, because the three-day limit is on making a motion to reconsider. At this point it's already made (and it could and would be voted down immediately), rendering further motions out of order. Even if made within the three days. Apr 9 at 7:20
  • @TimPederick Someone from the minority party objecting to the motion to table as a way to slow things down and allow them the opportunity to bribe people in the majority party into flipping onto their side, yes.
    – nick012000
    Apr 9 at 8:01
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    @Barmar the point of tabling the order is that it constitutes final disposition of the matter so the result of the nomination could be reported to the president immediately. Without that maneuver, they'd have to wait three days to make sure nobody who voted in the majority had a change of heart. It's right there in the senate rules.
    – phoog
    Apr 9 at 20:14
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The existing answers describe quorum calls in theory, but that's not how they generally work in the US Senate in practice (and not how it worked in the clip you asked about). The Senate uses quorum calls mostly as a way to pause proceedings, and the calls aren't meant to finish.

In the schedule of a deliberative assembly, there's always something that's supposed to be happening. Someone should be speaking on the subject of debate, or a motion or vote should be happening, or the chair should be moving on to the next item on the agenda. There's no agenda item for "mill around." Quorum calls fill that gap in the Senate. The clerk has to do a roll call, and during the roll call the senators can basically do whatever they want. In practice, clerks know this and so do the roll call pretty slowly. When the Senate wants to unpause, someone moves to withdraw the quorum call by unanimous consent and they can immediately get back to business.

On April 7, this is what that quorum call was about. Per the Congressional Record, the proceedings went like this:

Mr. SCHUMER. Madam President, very happily, I suggest the absence of a quorum.
The VICE PRESIDENT. The clerk will call the roll.
The senior assistant legislative clerk proceeded to call the roll.
Mr. SCHATZ. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.
The PRESIDING OFFICER (Mr. VAN HOLLEN). Without objection, it is so ordered.

Debate then continued on another nomination. The Senate didn't all go home, and the quorum call never decided whether or not a quorum was present. What it did was let the senators wander around chatting until they were ready to keep moving along the agenda.

The Congressional Research Service has a nice overview of the process.

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  • What does the "very happily" mean, then? Apr 9 at 19:27
  • @EmilJeřábek Maybe he was desperate for a cup of coffee before the next debate began?
    – IMSoP
    Apr 9 at 20:38
  • Maybe. Or maybe not. What I mean is, this answer explains well why the other answer are wrong, but it does not actually answer the question. Apr 10 at 5:59
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    @EmilJeřábek They wanted to celebrate and tweet about it. They've billed this as a very historic event, they want to relish it a bit (etc.) before getting back to (relatively) more mundane matters. Quorum call lets them do that. Apr 10 at 8:37
  • @EmilJeřábek Question 1 was “what do these mean and what is their effect.”
    – cpast
    Apr 10 at 15:13

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