In late 2006, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had a decision to make. Democrats had just captured control of the House in the midterm elections and she would soon become the first female speaker of the House.
One question weighing on Pelosi was whether she would maintain her smaller, hodge-podge office suite overlooking the Library of Congress on the east side of the Capitol -- or move into the more commodious digs featuring a vast panorama of the National Mall and Washington Monument on the west side of the building.
Then-House Speaker Denny Hastert, R-Ill., would soon be out the door.
And though Democrats held the House majority for more than 40 years, for the latter half of the 20th century, Democratic speakers -- including the late Sam Rayburn, Texas; Tip O’Neill, Mass.; and Tom Foley, Wash. -- mostly opted for the diminutive offices.
Out of tradition, Democrats ceded the capacious suites to Republicans despite their minority status. The better offices became the Speaker’s Office when the GOP captured the House in the historic 1994 midterms.
Should Pelosi remain in the smaller offices as homage to fellow Democratic speakers? Or should she upgrade to the new suite?
She consulted with O’Neill’s granddaughter, Catlin O’Neill, who at the time was an aide.
“It was sentimental and Catlin said ‘It’s OK. Move the office. The family wants you in the Speaker’s Office,’” Pelosi recounted to the Washington Post in 2007. And so Pelosi abandoned the Democratic rabbit warren on the west side of the building, matriculating to the anchor property on the Capitol’s East Front.
As strange as it may seem, Pelosi may feel a bit like her Democratic predecessors Rayburn, O’Neill and Foley these days. She now inhabits the cramped quarters now reserved for the minority as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, enjoys the roomier acreage.
But after recent congressional exercises just to pass a bill to avoid a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security, one wonders who really commands the most votes in the House now.
The case-in-point came a week ago Friday, hours before the DHS funding would expire. House Republicans insisted on latching a provision onto the spending plan to block President Obama’s immigration executive action. The gambit couldn’t get through the Senate. After multiple failed procedural votes, senators zapped an amended DHS measure back to the House. The new bill funded DHS through September 30 but dropped the immigration provisions.
House Republicans balked and refused the altered bill. Instead, they voted to form a conference committee to work out differences between the bodies. Meanwhile, DHS funding swung in the balance. The Senate mailed the House a three-week DHS spending bill to avoid a shutdown. Some House conservatives protested because the bill lacked the immigration executive order provisos. And Democrats voted no too, preferring a full-year of funding.
With DHS funding set to expire in just seven hours, House Republicans generated 191 yeas for that bill. But 217 yeas are needed these days for passage. With their majority, Republicans can only lose 28 of their own before turning to Democrats. Only 12 Democrats voted aye.
The bill failed.
Democrats were happy to vote yes on a “clean” DHS bill bereft of the immigration policy riders for the rest of the government’s fiscal year, but not for one that limped along for just a few weeks. Pelosi and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., implored their members to vote nay.
“House Republicans have painted themselves into a corner,” said Pelosi at the time. “I’m just saying to the speaker, get a grip. Get a grip on the responsibility we have.”
The vote infuriated Republicans who voted yes. A senior House GOP leadership source said they knew the vote was “going sideways” ahead of time. The source said rank-and-file members were “super-mad” at those who didn’t take one for the team and vote yea, feeling hung out to dry.
Without Democratic assistance, Republicans were cooked. And DHS was defunded in a matter of hours. With Obama’s blessing, Pelosi offered Democratic votes to Boehner to overcome the impasse.
The minority leader then crafted a “Dear Colleague” letter addressed to House Democrats. Pelosi thanked them for their “cooperation” on the failed DHS vote. But this time asked for yeas on a “seven-day patch.” She told Democrats a yes vote would “assure that we will vote for full funding next week.
An hour later, the House voted on the interim spending bill, approving it 357 to 60. A coalition of 183 Republicans and 174 Democrats voted yes. But Democrats were the key. The Department of Homeland Security was funded for a week.
But that wasn’t much time. And Monday night, it became clear that the Senate couldn’t handle the House’s wish to form a conference committee. The Senate prepped to send the “clean” DHS bill back to the House. And that’s when Boehner moved -- knowing Democrats could bail out recalcitrant Republicans and not shutter DHS.
“Imagine if, God forbid, another terrorist attack hits the United States,” said Boehner to House Republicans at a Tuesday morning conclave, according to a source.
Boehner told Republicans he continued to be “outraged and frustrated” at the president’s immigration maneuvers. But he said the decision to forge ahead and fund DHS was “the right one for this team and the right one for the country.”
Maybe so. Not many of Boehner’s members would buy it. And that’s where Pelosi would swoop in. The GOP wouldn’t secure 191 yeas like they did on the three-week spending bill last week. They’d need Democratic assistance. A source suggested the GOP would cobble together a group of Republicans who were either in the leadership, held committees chairmanships, served on the Appropriations Committee or were moderates. Democrats would take up the slack. In early 2013, the House approved a $50 billion aid bill for victims of Hurricane Sandy 241-180. But only 49 GOPers voted yes. Last February, the House voted to raise the debt limit 221-201. A scant 28 yeas came from Republicans with minority Democrats hauling most of the freight.
The House voted 257-167 to fund DHS, but only 75 Republicans voted yes. Again, it was Democrats who largely advanced the measure despite their minority status.
“Our members had the courage to say, ‘I don’t want the government to be shut down. But I’m not falling for this three-week plan,’” trumpeted Pelosi.
Pelosi persuaded her members to hold out for full-year fiscal funding. After several acrimonious days, the House voted for what Pelosi demanded.
So who is really in charge here? Boehner or Pelosi? Especially since big fights await on the debt limit, funding highway construction programs and avoiding a government shutdown in the fall. Democratic votes will be crucial to assist Republicans. Was Pelosi a “de facto speaker?"
“If there’s ever an oxymoron it is ‘de facto speaker.’ You’re either speaker or you’re not,” insisted Pelosi.
But on DHS funding, it was Pelosi who controlled the game. And because of the disarray on the GOP side of the aisle, the bill only passed when Pelosi offered her members to vote for the plan Democrats wanted.
The debate time allocation on the bill reflected internal House fissures. For the standard hour of debate, Republicans received 20 minutes of time, Democrats 20 minutes and opponents 20 minutes. This mirrors the “coalition” approach which appears to be essential to operate the House these days.
“The problem is, I don’t see a path to victory with what (opponents) are looking at,” chirped Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican and Boehner ally who managed the spending plan for the GOP. “It will lead to a close-down of the Department of Homeland Security and that is not a victory. That is very dangerous.”
Conservatives weren’t quite done with their machinations even as the final bill came to the floor. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., launched a final dilatory maneuver, objecting to the House setting aside an oral reading of the 96-page Senate amendment which struck the immigration provisions. House procedure dictates that all bills and such amendments are read aloud. It’s a vestige from the days before Xerox when there was often only a sole copy of legislation. The only way lawmakers could learn about a bill was to hear its content read from the dais.
Massie required House Reading Clerk Susan Cole to read the amendment for 20 minutes (she stopped once to sip water) before abandoning his protest and allowing the House to consider the Senate changes.
“It’s time to move forward and stop playing these silly games,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. “It is time for the House to move past the corrosive pattern of self-imposed cliffs and shutdowns and get to the work that the American people expect us to address.”
But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, railed against the GOP’s gambit.
“Since December, the outcome has been baked into the cake,” said Cruz. “Capitulation was the endpoint.”
Soon Congress must wrestle with the onerous issue of reimbursing physicians who treat Medicare patients. A failure to act could slash doctors’ payments by 25 percent. Lawmakers must adopt a budget. The Highway Trust Fund is bankrupt. They must keep the entire government open come October and also raise the debt limit. Each fight increases in level of difficulty. Perhaps the only way Republicans can move major agenda items is to rely on Democrats. This isn’t new. Boehner has had to rely on Democrats to pass almost every major bill since he assumed the speakership -- ranging from the debt ceiling to avoiding a government shutdown.
Pelosi flexed her muscles on the DHS bill and got her way. There could be a repeat of that phenomenon on big votes this year.
On Friday, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew wrote to Congress, saying the government will technically hit the debt ceiling next week. But the general consensus is that lawmakers might not have to move until autumn. Regardless, Lew beseeched “Congress to raise the debt limit as soon as possible.”
Pelosi quickly dashed off a follow-up statement:
“The treasury secretary’s letter is another reminder of the consequences of Republicans’ culture of crisis. There is no reason that the Republican Congress should not act immediately to take the prospect of a catastrophic default off of the table,” said the California Democrat.
If history is our guide, it’s hard to consider a scenario where Democrats aren’t again asked to carry the water on this issue and other issues, in lieu of the GOP majority.
Pelosi’s is certainly no longer the House speaker or a “de facto” speaker. She operates out of the smaller office suite and doesn’t have the power to bring bills to the floor yet the numbers to pass measures with only Democratic votes. Still, there was a time when Tip O’Neill and Tom Foley toiled in that very office while making sure the House trains ran on time. And it’s a circumstance not unlike the one in which Pelosi finds herself now.