Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) had a simple question for Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-WI) as he presided over the House floor from the dais Thursday night.
But the answer Obey gave was much more complex.
“For what purpose does the gentlemen from Wisconsin rise?” Weiner asked Obey.
“Sometimes, I wonder,” responded the wry Democrat.
Obey’s repartee actually revealed volumes about Thursday night’s House action. Ostensibly, the House was debating a “supplemental spending bill” to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the House never cast a single, direct vote on that issue. And most of the debate focused on funds for teachers, Pell Grants, summer jobs and three different ways to extract U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
This is what happens when the leadership struggles to find the votes to pass an essential bill. Or better yet, when lawmakers are reluctant to vote on something in a contested election year.
The way out of this impasse is to vote on something else.
Which is precisely what happened late Thursday.
Here’s the back-story: Since September 11th, Congress has approved a series of “emergency supplemental spending bills” to pay for military operations overseas. It started in Afghanistan and morphed into Iraq. Lawmakers know they can’t vote against these packages. Otherwise, they’ll be portrayed as “Anti-American” or “voting against the troops.
Congress has done spending bills for years. But in recent years, they're more focused on funding wars.
Supplementals were easier in the days shortly after 9-11 with Republicans running the White House and both houses of Congress. Democrats control all three institutions today. And Congress has grown war-weary. A troop drawdown is underway in Iraq. Still, as a candidate, President Obama promised to focus more attention on Afghanistan. The U.S. and NATO added 40,000 troops there just last year.
Many liberal Democrats want out. They instead want the U.S. to devote its resources to education, jobs and other pressing social programs.
“Every dollar we spend, every life we waste is a waste. It does not enhance the security of the United States,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY).
So House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) faced rough sledding as the Pentagon demanded the money and liberals prepared to jump ship.
“There is unease in our caucus about Afghanistan,” Pelosi conceded last week.
A great example of that is one of the speaker’s top lieutenants, House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY).
“A lot of us very much want to vote no on spending the money and staying there,” said Slaughter. “If we were to win, how can you tell?”
So Democratic leaders had to craft a way to pass the bill, yet not vote directly on the legislation. Pelosi was elliptical in her answer when reporters pressed her early on Thursday about what this package could look like.
“When the Rules Committee completes its work, we will see what form it will be in,” said Pelosi. “But suffice to say, whatever form it is in, whatever actions we take, our men and women in uniform on the ground will not be lacking in what they need.”
The “form” the bill took was a unique, parliamentary construct that confounded aides, journalists and members alike as they tried to decipher exactly what the House was going to tackle.
For starters, the Senate already approved the war money in May. So it dispatched the bill to the House. And since the Senate already packed the war money into the package, along with some other spending items, the House now had a great legislative canvas on which to paint.
The title of the bill didn’t even mention Afghanistan, Iraq, the military, the Pentagon or the troops. Instead, this legislation was called “Making emergency supplemental appropriations for disaster relief and summer jobs for fiscal year ending September 30, 2010, and for other purposes.”
Unlike most garden variety bills, the issue never went to a definitive, up or down vote where it passed XX to XX. And there was never an individual vote on the war money. Instead, there was a specific vote to add funds for teachers, Pell Grants, summertime jobs and to cover natural disasters.
Then Pelosi had to throw bones to lawmakers who oppose the war. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) offered an amendment requiring a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Another plan would have stricken money for the operation. And Reps. Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) teamed with Obey on a proposal asking the president to create withdrawal timetable.
In short, Congress approved a bill to continue the war while thrice voting on proposals to end it.
For days, Republicans were adamant they would vote against the Afghanistan bill if Democrats saddled the bill with extras. Even if some argued the extras weren't extras. They were just parts of the supplemental spending legislation.
In the end, Republicans didn’t get to oppose the overall bill. Because there was no final vote.
Still, all of the Democratic machinations didn’t mean this was a gimme.
Twice Thursday night, Democrats engineered a “Call of the House.” That’s essentially a Congressional “bed check.” A Call of the House asks members to report to the floor. That serves two purposes: First, the leadership can assess who’s there. Secondly, it buys time for the whip operation to persuade wavering members.
Calls of the House are rare. And two in a matter of hours is nearly unheard of.
Just before 7 pm, the White House issued a veto threat of the bill. The statement warned that Mr. Obama’s advisers would recommend he veto the measure if it would “undermine his ability as Commander in Chief to conduct military operations in Afghanistan.” The administration also didn’t like how the House trimmed some education priorities.
The House did have to cross one crucial parliamentary hurdle just to lug the legislation to the floor: approve what’s known as the “rule.”
Most major bills require the House adopt a “rule” which establishes the terms of debate on an issue. If the House doesn’t approve the rule, the measure dies.
The veto threat at such a late hour made many Democrats skittish. So the whips had to do extra work to make sure the rule would pass.
But when Democrats went to the rule vote, the outcome seemed anything but certain. A bevy of House aides swarmed around House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) near the front of the chamber. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) scanned a long sheet of paper and squinted to read the tally board showing how lawmakers voted. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) roamed the chamber. At one point, Democrats were losing the vote. Then it drew it even at 207-207. Pelosi summoned Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-IL) out of the middle of the aisle for a conversation. The clock hit 0:00. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) had not voted. He leaned against the dais as he chatted with Pelosi and Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Barney Frank (D-MA) before voting yes. The scoreboard moved to 211-208. And later climbed to 216-209.
“Are there any members wishing to change their vote?” asked Anthony Weiner from the rostrum.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) sprinted into the well.
“One more, one more, one more!” she shouted. Giffords was on the board as a yes. But the resolution was now assured of passage. The Congresswoman quickly filled out a card that switched her vote to no.
The scoreboard flipped to 215-210. And Weiner closed the vote with a bang of the gavel. It was close. Change three votes and the war bill never gets to the floor. Thirty-eight Democrats voted against their leadership.
The House then debated the actual bill. Later, only 100 lawmakers voted to impose a schedule for withdrawing from Afghanistan. A scant 25 voted to cut off money for the war, alongside 22 members who voted present. And the House defeated the withdrawal schedule, 260-162.
By 11 pm, the House was finished. Lawmakers against the war couldn’t be accused of not funding the troops. Those who wanted to end the conflict had voted to do just that. And those who wanted the education and jobs money had voted for that, too.
In the now-infamous Rolling Stone article, Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s chief of operations indicated that a win in Afghanistan “is not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win.”
Perhaps that’s only appropriate. Because the debate to fund the Afghanistan campaign certainly didn’t look, smell or taste like a debate on fighting a war there, either.