In mid-May, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) sunk to the lowest ebb of her speakership. Pelosi conducted a calamitous May 14 press conference where she claimed the CIA lied to her about interrogation methods. The media and Republicans carped about this for weeks.
Forty-four days later, Pelosi soared to her zenith.
The House Friday night approved a sweeping and controversial climate change and energy bill. It’s a measure that Energy Independence and Global Warming Chairman Ed Markey (D-MA) proclaimed “was unachievable six months ago.” Pelosi rolled the dice and brought the bill to the floor, forcing what would produce the toughest vote in the House to date this year.
Republicans opposed the package from the start. But Pelosi faced major firestorms in her caucus. Moderate and conservative Democrats fretted about hikes in energy prices the legislation could impose on struggling families. Environmentally-conscious liberals asserted the bill didn’t go far enough. Union and industry Democrats from the Midwest and Great Lakes wondered how it would impact steel and car production. And then agriculture state lawmakers raised issues about the definitions of renewable fuels and offsets for the use of farm land.
“It’s like I’m trying to translate for people who speak Urdu and French and I don’t speak either language,” huffed a skeptical House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) eight days ago. “I don’t see how we do it next week.”
But they did.
However at the time of Peterson’s remarks, the legislation was on life-support. And Pelosi faced either a major defeat on what she called her “flagship issue.” Or at the very least, an erosion of her command as arguably the most-powerful speaker since Sam Rayburn.
Pelosi broke into the House leadership in 2001 as the Democratic Whip, her party’s top vote counter. The skills she honed in the whip’s office served her well in the run-up to this vote. And Republicans may well have had a hand in giving the speaker an opportunity to whip wavering members of her caucus.
On Wednesday, House Republicans seethed that Democrats curbed their amendments and time on spending bills. So the GOP engaged in a series of dilatory tactics to slow down the House. They demanded revotes of previous votes. They forced votes on motions to adjourn. That created a bloc of votes on the House floor. When so many votes are weaved together, lawmakers can’t stray and have to stick close to the House floor. That created a captive audience for Pelosi. She flitted about the House chamber from wavering member to wavering member. The speaker clutched in her hand a list of lawmakers she needed to court to approve the landmark legislation. She buttonholed Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). She chatted up Sanford Bishop (D-GA). Her list scrolled in her hand, Pelosi stopped Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) in the well of the House. Bono Mack is one of only eight Republicans who would ultimately vote for the legislation. But Pelosi knew this was a two-fer. A constant at Bono Mack’s side is her husband, Rep. Connie Mack Jr. (R-FL). No fool she, Pelosi talked to the Congressional couple, perhaps hopeful that Bono Mack could persuade her partner to vote for the bill.
The whipping was intense. Knowing he’d soon be in the speaker’s crosshairs, Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-IA) launched a pre-emptive strike and approached Pelosi himself to discuss utility rate concerns. Boswell said the speaker told him the rate increases would be minimal.
“I’m trying to convince myself of that,” he said. In the end, Boswell must have done so. He voted for the bill.
But Pelosi wasn’t the only one working on lawmakers.
Rep. Phil Hare (D-IL) was concerned about the impact on farmers. He even got a call from White House Chief of Staff and former fellow Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel to plead for his vote. The feisty Emanuel is known for unleashing occasional, profanity-laced tirades. But Hare said he already made up his mind to support the bill by the time Emanuel phoned.
“I told him, ‘I hate to be the bearer of bad news. You don’t get to scream at me,’” Hare said.
For a while this week, House Democrats flirted with bringing former Vice President Al Gore to the Capitol to address recalcitrant Democrats. Gore’s penned several books on global warming and presented the acclaimed 2006 documentary on climate change “An Inconvenient Truth.” In the end, Gore stayed in Tennessee and worked the phones. But at the very least, this was going to be an inconvenient vote for many lawmakers. And House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) warned junior, moderate Democrats from swing districts that he was going to make them squirm.
“Mark my words. This will be a defining vote of this Congress,” opined Boehner. “The American people will remember this vote.”
Boehner asked if the lawmakers in question would side with the interests of their districts or the “liberal” House speaker.
By Friday, the House towed the energy and climate bill to the floor. But it was clear Democrats weren’t certain they had the votes.
“We aren’t there yet,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the chief Democratic vote counter.
But a few minutes later, Clyburn backtracked and announced he had “218-217 votes.”
If that was the case, Clyburn would be precisely on the threshold of the number of necessary votes to approve the measure. On Friday, there were 434 members of the House with one vacancy. If all members voted, 218 votes would be enough. 217 would be a tie. But tie votes in the House lose.
Still, Clyburn left lingering doubts about the vote count.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” Clyburn said.
Republicans were giddy at the Democrats’ fix.
“Either way, it’s a win-win for us,” said a senior Republican aide. “Either she (Pelosi) doesn’t have the votes and she has egg on her face or it passes and we let our friends across the street do their job.”
The “friends across the street” line refers to the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee (NRCC). It’s prepping to firebomb TV ads and attack campaigns at moderate and conservative Democrats from swing districts.
As the debate dragged through the afternoon, the focus turned to precisely how many votes Democrats would need pass the bill. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), who’s faced bouts with alcohol and medication over the years, admitted himself to rehab weeks ago. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) had been out for three weeks for surgery. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) was overseas. All supported the bill.
But Republicans didn’t have a full team on the field, either. Rep. John Sullivan (R-OK) also admitted himself to a clinic for alcoholism. And Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) was away on family business. They opposed the pact. So, the assumption was that 429 members would be present for the vote. That meant Democrats needed 216 votes for passage. And the coupled absences of Kennedy, Lewis, Hastings, Sullivan and Flake meant the Democrats were at a net loss of one vote.
It was tense.
Aides, lobbyists, lawmakers and journalists speculated who would get worked over during the vote. Would Democrats hold the vote open?
And then something interesting happened. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) materialized in the chamber.
In February, Kennedy’s father, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), suffering from brain cancer, rallied to return to the Senate and cast a decisive vote to help clear the way for President Obama’s stimulus package. For a moment, it appeared that the elder Kennedy wasn’t the only family member capable of legislative drama. Rumors were rampant that Patrick Kennedy’s presence could be the decisive vote to lug this measure across the finish line.
“They pulled Patrick Kennedy out of rehab to vote???” blasted a GOP aide via email. “Must be REALLY close.”
Kennedy would certainly help. But his appearance on the floor wasn’t the best signal that Democrats had the votes in hand. Nor was a nod from Jim Clyburn. The best indicator that Democrats had the vote on autopilot could be found in the furniture arrangement of the Rayburn Room, located just off the House chamber.
The Rayburn Room is an ornate meeting room adorned with couches, big-backed chairs, tables and fireplaces. During votes, lawmakers huddle with constituents or aides here. But Friday morning, the room was stripped bare of its furniture. It sat empty, the carpet providing a wide-expanse, much like at a KinderCare.
Early in the day, Democrats ordered the room cleared to prepare for a potential press conference to bask in the afterglow of a hard legislative victory.
Democrats were optimistic they would prevail. But not certain. So the room remained bare. Until 5:32 pm. That’s when Democratic aides suddenly appeared with banners, chairs and a lectern. They were preparing for a victory lap. Their reconfiguration of the room for the news conference proved to be the best indicator that Democrats secured the necessary votes.
At that point, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) knew he couldn’t stop the Democrats. But he could certainly slow them down. So at the end of the debate, Boehner donned a pair of reading glasses and began to peel through major portions added to the bill overnight and read them aloud to his colleagues.
Boehner held forth for more than an hour, reading obscure sections of the legislation. His presentation was 7,699 words long.
Boehner then yielded to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to finish the debate. Known for her long, flourishing speeches, the speaker kept it short.
“No matter how long this Congress wants to talk about it, it cannot hold back the future,” she said.
Pelosi held her remarks to 73 words.
At 7:17 pm, Democrats closed the vote. The tally was 219-212. A switch of four votes would have torpedoed the legislation. And Democrats had not only the vote of Patrick Kennedy, but John Lewis made the scene as well.
“It was a tough vote,” conceded Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC).
But Clyburn pointed out that his nose counting earlier in the day was on the money.
“I was at 217. The two of them (Kennedy and Lewis) got us to 219,” he said.
Certainly Kennedy and Lewis proved to be a cushion for Clyburn and company. But ultimately, they weren’t responsible for passing the bill. With 44 Democrats defecting, Pelosi and Clyburn can thank eight Republicans who voted yes for handing them the victory.
Earlier this year, Boehner and the Republican leadership crowed about their party discipline. They lost nary a Republican on two votes for the president’s stimulus plan. But Friday, they lost Reps. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Mike Castle (R-DE), Christopher Smith (R-NJ), Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), Leonard Lance (R-NJ), Dave Reichert (R-WA) and John McHugh (R-NY).
At the end of the day, most lawmakers who face potential electoral consequences, on both sides of the aisle, voted locally. Both Mark Kirk and Mike Castle are tinkering with Senate runs. Mr. Obama carried the district represented by Bono Mack. Reichert’s district sits a stone’s throw outside of liberal Seattle. He faces a tough re-election every year. Pending Senate confirmation, McHugh’s on track to become President Obama’s Army Secretary.
Despite his threats against Democrats, Boehner promised no reprisals against his GOP dissenters.
Meantime, many of the Democrats Boehner warned he’d come after did not support the legislation. Rep. Walt Minnick (R-ID) arrived in Washington with a gigantic bulls eye on his back. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) won Minnick’s district by 26 points last year . President George W. Bush carried it by 37 points in 2004.
And many Democrats who the GOP would be happy to target, inoculated themselves with a no vote. Case studies in that can be found in the nay votes of Reps. Jason Altmire (D-PA) and Charlie Wilson (D-OH).
Still, Republicans are sure to focus instead on the yes votes of Reps. Zack Space (D-OH) and freshmen John Boccieri (D-OH) Tom Perriello (D-VA) and Frank Kratovil (D-MD). If Boehner has his way, Friday night could prove to be an “inconvenient vote” for these lawmakers.
As Pelosi prepared to enter the Rayburn Room for her valedictory, she carried with her a big red “Easy” button from Staples. Pelosi spotted Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) in the hall and playfully depressed the button in front of him.
“That was easy,” the button blurted.
The vote was anything but.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.