I spied former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) trolling the halls of the Capitol a few days before House Democrats voted on their big health care reform bill.
For a few moments, I pondered if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Co. were putting the man known as "The Hammer" on retainer to help them whip the votes.
After all, Major League Baseball teams bring in "mercenaries" at the end of the season to boost their squads for the pennant races. Why couldn't Democrats do the same with the health care reform bill?
“They haven’t asked,” laughed DeLay. “I don’t know why.”
Known for what some people described as a brass-knuckle approach to politics, Democrats couldn't do much better than inking DeLay. He never lost a single floor vote during his time as leader.
DeLay vehemently opposed the Democrats’ health care reform effort. But policy aside, the Texas Republican indicated he’d handle the vote in the same fashion as the current Democratic braintrust.
“I don’t know that I’d do anything different,” DeLay said. “They’re counting on exhaustion to carry the day. They aren’t going to vote until the very last minute. Members get worn down.”
That's a time-honored tactic. Even if you don’t have the votes yet, forge ahead and call the vote. That requires a certain bravado. Even arrogance. But regardless of the politics or party, it’s the quintessence of leadership. And a leader like DeLay or Pelosi must be confident that the people they helped get elected will hunker down with them in the foxhole when the shooting starts.
Lawmakers can hem and haw on a given issue for weeks and months. Timid leaders allow endless jawboning and never move the issue in question. The axiom is simple: you’ll never have the votes until you really need them.
And that’s what happened with every round of the health care reform bill in the House of Representatives. Pelosi and her lieutenants consistently asserted they “would have the votes when we vote.” That’s right. They didn’t have them a week before the key votes. A day before the big votes. Even an hour. But when it came down to saying yea or nay, the votes were there.
“To run the House of Representatives, there’s got to be some discipline,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) on Pelosi’s approach to culling together the votes.
Republicans endured their fair share of close, pivotal votes while they held the House majority. The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). A big budget vote in November of 2005. And the legendary prescription drug benefit vote in November, 2003.
DeLay was House Majority Leader when Republicans held open that vote a record three hours to pass the legislation. The vote started at 3 am on a Saturday and closed just before 6 am. It shattered the old record by nearly an hour and a half.
Democrats were ahead for much of the vote. And one by one, Republicans coaxed a few wavering members to vote for the legislation.
In one famous episode, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) cornered former Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) for more than an hour on the floor. Smith was a no vote. And Thompson and Hastert pleaded with Smith to switch to yes. Meantime, Smith remained stoic in his chair, white-knuckling the armrests with both hands.
A few days later, Smith indicated he felt as though GOP leaders offered him a bribe on the House floor. An ethics investigation ensued. The Ethics Committee eventually slapped DeLay and Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) on the wrist for the pressure they applied to Smith.
DeLay and the Republicans never got Smith’s vote. But they eventually secured the votes they needed just before 6 am. As soon as the tally board flipped in favor of the GOP, the Republican leadership shut off the vote.
Many lawmakers decried DeLay for his win-at-all-costs gambit to prevail on lawmakers. But DeLay contends that wasn’t his style.
“I was always accused of breaking arms and legs,” he said. “And the truth is, I never had to.”
But not everyone saw it that way.
At 6:10 am that Saturday, then House Minority Leader Pelosi dragged together about seven reporters, including yours truly, for a hastily arranged press conference. As a radio reporter, I was the only one with recording equipment. And Pelosi took the Republicans to task.
“If there was ever an argument to be made for why they are not fit to be in the majority in this House, one need only look at their conduct on the floor of this House tonight,” she lectured.
When it came to health care, House Democrats never had to hold a vote open all night to secure victory. But they sure sweated it. They had to make concessions to pro-life Democrats. The first round in the Senate produced deals that became known as the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase and Gatorade. They were crafted to marshal the votes of Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NE), Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Bill Nelson (D-FL).
Come March, House Democrats tinkered briefly with passing the Senate health care bill with a little-understood parliamentary maneuver called “deem and pass.” In essence, the House would okay the Senate bill without having a separate debate and vote on the issue. “Deem and pass” quickly became a public relations disaster for Democrats. They euthanized the effort and approved the Senate bill the old-fashioned way.
And then there was reconciliation. Reconciliation is a special way to pass legislation in the Senate that blocks amendments and filibusters. With the election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), Democrats didn’t have the votes to clear the GOP’s hurdles. So they used privileged reconciliation rules to pass the legislation. While the procedure was mostly a Senate issue, the Constitution required the House to initiate the reconciliation process.
Like it or not, Democrats pulled off a health care victory.
They didn’t hold open the vote in the dead of night. But there is criticism about the way they clawed for votes.
It remains unclear whether Republicans will go as far as Pelosi did on that Saturday morning in 2003 when she argued the GOP’s tactics made them “not fit to be in the majority in this House.”
Even many who like the bill abhor the strategy Democrats used to pass the legislation.
A USA Today poll found that 53 percent of those questioned called the Democrats’ methods to approve the bill “an abuse of power.”
For weeks leading up to the critical vote, reporters badgered Democratic leaders if they had the votes to pass the bill. Most met the queries with platitudes that they were “making progress.” But after they passed the health bill, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) made sure he addressed the interrogative with finality.
“For all of you who’ve pursued all of us, we had the votes,” said Hoyer shortly after the legislative victory.
Had them? Maybe. Got them? Certainly.
And at what cost?