Explaining That Bonkers 'House of Cards' Senate Sequence

Could the dramatic Senate sequence in season 2 two of ‘House of Cards’ happen in real life?

Kevin Spacey in season 2 of Netflix's "House of Cards."

When it comes to manipulating Congress, Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) has still got it.


When it comes to ridiculous storylines, gasp-inducing plot twists and hammy one-liners, the second season of “House of Cards” doesn’t disappoint.

[Warning, spoilers ahead. Do not read unless you’ve seen the first three episodes.]

Some of the big surprises, i.e. those involving fast-moving metro trains, are pretty self-explanatory. Others are nothing short of mind boggling, particularly a multipart maneuver Vice President Frank Underwood uses to pass some important legislation through the Senate in the season’s third episode. How did it all work? And is it even legal? An explainer:

What’s at stake

Without the passage of an omnibus bill, the federal government is set to shut down (government shutdowns are called “government freezes” in the fictional “House of Cards” universe for some inexplicable reason) and on the day after the president’s State of the Union no less. Democratic President Garrett Walker’s approach is to blame the GOP, which will not pass the omnibus without entitlement reform. Underwood insists that Americans will still fault Walker and the Democrats, and that the administration is better off pushing through a law that gives the Republicans what they have been asking for – a raise in the retirement age – and then get all the credit for being bipartisan. The plan is to get the Republican-led Senate to pass the deal so Walker can announce it at the State of the Union. Underwood has three days to make it happen.

[READ: Watch DC Lawmakers Re-enact 'House of Cards']

Who’s playing

Once Walker green-lights the plan, Underwood, who was the House majority whip before ascending to the vice presidency, must work with Senate Majority Leader Hector Mendoza as well as Democratic Senate leaders (those two old guys who have dinner at Chez Underwood). Making things complicated is Curtis Haas, a Ted Cruz-esque tea party politician who is looking to buck the “establishment” at any given moment.

The original deal

After some tireless negotiating, Underwood gets all the players involved to agree to an amendment to the omnibus bill that would, among other things, raise the retirement age to 68. Underwood still fears that Haas will filibuster the bill once the amendment is passed, so he convinces Mendoza to sign a formal written agreement that by passing the retirement age amendment, the Senate will also be passing the entire omnibus bill.

The deal falls apart

Sure enough, Haas has decided that he won’t support the deal. Fearing that his majority leadership will be overthrown by Haas and his caucus if Mendoza goes forward with it, Mendoza backs away as well, taking with him the Republican votes. The Democrats alone do not have enough votes to pass the bill. 

Underwood’s solution

If Underwood can get five Republicans to vote for the bill, 10 Republicans to abstain from voting, or some combination of the two, he will have enough votes, including his tiebreaking vote as president of the Senate. (By this calculation, the “House of Cards” Senate is made up of 45 Democrats and 55 Republicans). Underwood gets on the phone, and with some good old fashion legislative bribery, convinces two Republicans to vote for law and six to abstain, meaning the final tally will be 48 yes’s (45 Democrats + two Republicans + Underwood’s vote) votes and 47 no’s (55 Republicans – six abstaining – two Republicans voting yes)

The GOP response

Republican leadership gets word that Underwood is poaching votes, so they seek a stalling tactic to figure out how to win them back. Haas suggests a quorum call – a roll call to establish that a quorum, the 51 senators required to do business, is present – and that they call it slowly, one name per hour, to last them the 49 hours until recess.

The dramatic climax

Having enough votes to pass the amendment in a simple majority, Underwood rushes into the chamber, and as president of the Senate and presiding officer, orders that the roll being called for the quorum call to be sped up. By the time they have finished the roll (fun fact: the last three names called – Whitehouse, Wicker and Wyden – are real senators), the Republicans have fled the chamber and the Senate no longer has a quorum to vote on the amendment. The Senate minority leader orders a motion that any senator not sick or excused be brought back to the chamber, a motion that passes easily as the Democrats now greatly outnumber the Republicans in the chamber. Congressional guards go banging on the doors and realizing he is in trouble, Mendoza meets Underwood in the Democratic cloakroom.

Mendoza is reluctant to surrender the six senators required for by quorum to pass the amendment, so Underwood offers him some political cover. “Pick your six best actors," Underwood suggests, and Mendoza and his colleagues appear to be dragged into the chamber against their will. With a quorum reached, Underwood can pass the amendment. Haas storms in, threatening to filibuster the bill, but Underwood reminds him that per his and Mendoza’s earlier agreement, the bill has passed with the amendment.

So, is this all legal?

To find out if this could happen in the real Senate, we turned to Richard Arenberg, who worked 30 years in the Senate and wrote a book about just this kind of legislative minutia called “Defending the Filibuster: Soul of the Senate.” He now teaches courses about Congress at Brown University.  

“Actually it’s based on a real event,” he says, referring to the sequence’s most dramatic moment, the senators being carried in handcuffs into the chamber. When Republicans were initiating a quorum call then leaving the chamber so a quorum could not be reached during a 1988 filibuster, then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., put forth a motion for the Senate sergeant-at-arms to find and bring absent Republicans into the chamber. (Per Article I of Section 5 of the Constitution, such a motion does not require a quorum to be passed). One such Republican, Sen. Robert Packwood, R-Ore., was carried feet first into the chamber after, acting off a tip from a cleaning lady, the sergeant discovered that he was hiding in his office and his office door frame had to be physically removed to retrieve him.

[READ: Robin Wright Talks Claire Underwood and 'House of Cards']

The final piece of the puzzle, the agreement made by Underwood and Mendoza that passing the amendment would mean passing the bill, is a reference to the legal and in fact fairly common practice known as unanimous consent. Senate leaders typically bring such agreements concerning protocol to the floor where they are passed without a vote, given that no senator objects. Usually if a unanimous consent bill is being brought to the floor, according to Arenberg, a phone call with a recording explaining its terms will go out to each senator’s legislative director, and he or she can signal whether the senator will want to object.

In “House of Cards,” Haas complains that he was not informed of such an agreement. “Pay attention to the fine print. It’s far more important than the selling price,” Underwood tells him and perhaps Haas's office was asleep at the wheel when the unanimous consent was being called. However, Haas could have indeed been completely blindsided and purposely left unaware of the agreement.

“That’s a little over the top, because generally the leadership wouldn’t do that out of senatorial courtesy. But there’s nothing that could prevent them from doing that,” Arenberg says.

Considering that the whole agreement was made in order to ward off Haas's filibuster and Mendoza ultimately scolds Haas for not toeing the party line, such a maneuver – while unlikely in real life – is certainly not unthinkable in the dark, cynical world of “House of Cards.”