It was well past 11:30 last Friday night when a cluster of reporters starved for information descended on Nadeam Elshami as he exited the Speaker’s Office in the U.S. Capitol.
As spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), journalists peppered Elshami with questions about if there was a deal on abortion.
“Go upstairs to the Rules Committee,” directed Elshami.
What? They announcing an agreement there? Some of the reporters didn’t even know the Rules panel was still meeting at this late hour.
“All I can tell you is go up to the Rules Committee,” implored Elshami.
And with that, most of the reporters abandoned their long stakeout in front of the Speaker’s Office. They hustled up to the third floor of the Capitol, some taking two stairs at a time, to reach the bandbox that doubles as the Rules Committee’s hearing room.
And in the front row of the hearing room sat Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), one of the biggest abortion foes in Congress.
The Rules Committee is the most-powerful panel no one outside the Beltway has ever heard of. It’s the gateway to the House floor. Almost every piece of legislation must first layover at the Rules Committee to receive a ‘rule.’ The ‘rule’ is the blueprint for how the House will handle a given issue on the floor. How much debate time is permitted. What amendments are in order. And the deck is always stacked in favor of the majority party.
But the full House can sideline a bill by not okaying a rule to govern debate. That means the measure never makes it to the House floor.
That was the conundrum on health care for the House Democratic leadership.
Abortion bedeviled the health care reform bill for months. Stupak and other pro-life Democrats threatened to defeat the measure unless the legislation specifically prohibited women from using federal dollars to pay for abortions and preserved private health care plans that did not allow abortions.
Since summer, Stupak suggested he might try blow up the “rule” on the health care bill unless he got his way. And defeating the “rule” would keep the overall health legislation off the floor.
The Rules Committee entertained nearly interminable testimony about the health care bill since 2 pm on Friday. Most lawmakers and aides were exasperated at the process. Especially as it bled so late into the night.
The press corps that loped upstairs for the big announcement in the Rules Committee slid into chairs at the back of the cramped hearing room. I entered through a back door and secured a chair close to Stupak on the side. The clock pushed midnight. And no sooner had I sat down did I receive separate emails from senior House leadership staffers informing me there was an “agreement” on abortion. Such a deal could help secure the necessary votes for the rule and propel the actual bill onto the floor.
Stupak and a handful of other pro-life lawmakers began their testimony before the Rules Committee at 12:01 am Saturday. The reporters leaned forward, eager to hear Stupak announce the compact crafted with the leadership.
“Through these last weeks, we’ve looked to resolve the issue. We looked to have an agreement tonight,” Stupak said. “But it fell apart.”
Fell apart? What? They said there was a deal? Surely they wouldn’t want us at the Rules Committee to hear about their failure.
So for the next 45 minutes, Stupak, Reps. Joseph Pitts (R-PA), Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA) and others appealed to the Rules Committee to let the House debate their abortion amendment.
That prospect seemed impossible . After all, Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) said earlier that the only amendment anyone could offer would be the Republican alternative health care bill.
“We’re not playing any favorites,” Slaughter said.
Stupak and his colleagues abandoned the witness table around 12:40 am. The few reporters still lingering buttonholed the Congressman in the hallway. A former Michigan state trooper, Stupak appeared drained. He hadn’t set foot in Washington all week. His mother-in-law passed away unexpectedly during surgery a few days before. Stupak returned to Washington late Friday went straight to the Rules Committee. He hadn’t even swung by his Congressional office yet.
“I have not had a deal with the speaker,” Stupak told the throng. “I have not received any assurances by the speaker that (my anti-abortion amendment) would be made in order.”
Everyone scratched their heads. How could there be a deal then?
“We’ve had so many agreements. I don’t believe anything unless it’s on paper,” Stupak said. “Let’s see what (the rule) says.”
Stupak left. And around 1:30 am Saturday, with only a handful of lawmakers and reporters on hand, the House Rules Committee approved a rule that sure enough guaranteed consideration of two amendments: the Republican alternative health plan and Stupak’s.
There, in the dead of night, with almost no one watching or there to document it, something unthinkable happened. Nancy Pelosi stared at a stinging defeat on the health care effort. Such a loss could carry even greater political consequences for President Obama. Pelosi is known for her ability to cajole and persuade House Democrats. However, tonight, Pelosi failed to bridge the abortion impasse.
Pelosi’s critics often deride her as ruthless and uncompromising. But she’s also pragmatic. And Pelosi knew she had to take dire action that even threatened to alienate an entirely different wing of her caucus.
Assuring a woman’s right to choose has been a plank in the Democrats’ national platform for years. And with the health care bill swinging in the balance, the first female Speaker of the House gave the Rules Committee her blessing to make Stupak’s amendment in order.
It was a last-ditch effort to salvage the bill.
Pelosi’s maneuver infuriated pro-choice Democratic women like Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), one of the speaker’s chief vote counters, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). For days, DeLauro was nearly reticent every time she exited the health care negotiations in the Speaker’s office. Lawmakers who don’t want to answer reporter’s questions directly are said to perform a “tap dance.” As reporters pursued DeLauro across the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, the Connecticut Democrat shuffle-ball-changed her way through an actual tap dance to avoid answering the scribes queries. And when DeLauro left Pelosi’s quarters late Friday night, she didn’t say a peep.
Of course, little did anyone know of the bomb Pelosi detonated inside her office on abortion.
Saturday morning came with the House buzzing about the Stupak amendment. The Democratic leadership ordered a series of votes on non-controversial issues shortly after the House gaveled into session. These votes are known as “bed checks.” It forces members to go to the floor so the whip teams can take “attendance” and assess if they have the votes on crucial votes coming later in the day.
Two storylines emerged during these votes. First, Pelosi’s strategy with Stupak showed it could pay off. A number of reluctant, pro-life Democrats said they could now vote for the bill. But only if the House approved the Stupak amendment first, latching the anti-abortion language to the rest of the package. So, the real test could be on the Stupak vote. And in the wee hours of Saturday morning, Stupak said “if my amendment is made in order I believe it will pass.”
But by fixing the abortion problem, Democrats may have created another one.
Which is the second storyline.
Republicans were vitriolic in their criticism of the health care bill. But many GOPers appreciated how the Stupak amendment would permanently outlaw federal dollars from paying for abortions. Since 1977, Congress has reauthorized the ban annually. Republicans had a choice to make. They could vote for the Stupak amendment and stick with their party’s anti-abortion policy. Or vote against Stupak and sink the entire health care bill for Pelosi and Mr. Obama.
Rumors spread through the Capitol that Republicans might not vote against the Stupak amendment, but instead vote “present.” That way, Republicans didn’t vote against their consciences on abortion. But they would manage to kill the bill.
It didn’t happen that way.
Anti-abortion organizations phoned Republican leaders to warn them they’d watch pro-life lawmakers to see how they’d vote on the Stupak amendment. And instructions came from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that lawmakers shouldn’t try to capitalize on the Stupak amendment for political gain.
Pro-life politicians often speak about the “sanctity of life.” And when it came time to vote Saturday night, anti-abortion groups made it clear that the “sanctity of Stupak” outweighed Republican desires to defeat the health care bill.
“Of all the votes they (anti-abortion groups) decide to score and they pick this one?” fumed one Republican lawmaker about the missed opportunity to defeat the legislation. “We could have killed this bill.”
However, House Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) disagreed with that assessment at a post-witching hour press conference Sunday morning.
“We weren’t confident that we could have brought down the bill,” McMorris Rodgers said.
And two of McMorris Rodgers’ colleagues signaled that it was paramount for pro-life Republicans to vote in favor of the Stupak amendment, despite their objections to the overall health care bill.
“Life is not something you play politics with,” said Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-PA). “We would have lost all of our credibility.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) echoed Pitts.
“We have never used the right to life issue as a ploy or a means to get something else,” Smith said.
And they didn’t.
Legendary House Speaker Henry Clay once quipped that “compromise is negotiated hurt.”
Republicans and Democrats alike were hurt in this battle. But at the end of the day, it was clear that one party compromised. And one party did not.
- 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.
- The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.