WASHINGTON – What if you went to the baseball park every day and the same team won every day?
That’s what usually happens in the House of Representatives. And when I come through the Congressional turnstile each day, I know which team is going to win: the majority party.
See, a determined majority in the House can always win. It doesn’t matter if Democrats or Republicans are in charge. The majority can always win. It’s routine.
In the House, the rule is you don’t bring a bill to the floor unless you know you have the votes to pass it.
That’s why I looked forward to taking my seat in the Congressional bleachers for Monday’s "game" on the financial rescue package. No one really knew if Democrats and Republicans could cobble together a coalition to approve the critical measure.
The outcome was worth the price of admission.
Lots of issues come and go here on Capitol Hill. But I have never seen a piece of legislation where the stakes were so high, the outcome so unclear and lawmakers so vexed about what to do.
Politicians are notorious for breaking campaign promises. But here’s the one they break most often: Running commercials promising to go to Washington to take tough votes.
Lawmakers from both parties don’t like taking tough votes. If they did, they would have clamored for this one. And for legislative engineers, it would prove to be the ultimate challenge: Convince everyone to approve a bill that no one likes yet everyone agrees is necessary.
Winston Churchill may have described the Soviet Union as "a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma." He may as well have been depicting the conundrum facing Congressional leaders.
Big votes come down the Congressional pike only every few years. On Sunday, retiring Rep. Chip Pickering (R-MS) warned the GOP that this would be a "legacy" vote, like impeachment or the vote to invade Iraq.
Lawmakers squirmed as they wrestled with their decision.
Demonstrative of that was Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL).
At nearly 11 pm Sunday, Hastings (D-FL) admitted to his colleagues on the House Rules Committee that his vote had come full-circle. It orbited from a "solid no to undecided to lean yes, to undecided and back to solid no."
So when I hit the Capitol Monday, one of my first goals was to figure out where the votes were. And while vote-counting is always a peculiar bit of political alchemy, nailing down the votes for this would be particularly elusive.
It wasn’t long until I heard that Democrats would probably lose about 100 Members of their Caucus. So that meant Republicans would have to cough up about 100 votes of their own to make up the difference.
Not long after the debate began, House Majority Leader (D-MD) Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told me he" thought he "had the votes" to pass the bill. But a little later, a senior member of the Democratic leadership team conceded to me that he wasn’t as positive. He that they may have to leave the vote open a while to twist arms.
Leaving a vote open isn’t unheard of. House rules require most votes to stay open at least 15 minutes. Clocks on "scoreboards" inside the chamber usually run down to 00:00. But like soccer, the time is kept on the field. They don’t close votes immediately and allow play to continue a few minutes afterwards.
This is where whipping comes in. Whipping is what Congressional leaders do to persuade lawmakers to vote their way. They appeal. They horse-trade. They cajole. Even threaten. Often the best time to "grow" a vote comes when the scoreboard clock winds down and a bill’s fate lies in the balance.
At that point, the House chamber can evolve into a legislative crucible, built to forge just the right alloy of Democrats and Republicans to approve a bill.
But here’s the problem: lawmakers didn’t have time. Rosh Hashanah loomed at sundown. The House wasn’t even supposed to be in session Monday. It was already pushing 2 pm even though Democrats brought the House into session early in the morning. The vote count stagnated. Jewish lawmakers had to jump on airplanes. And it became clear the votes just weren’t there.
The vote tally surged ahead for a while, then retreated. And finally fell behind. I watched the Dow start to crater in synchronicity with the failing House tally.
But I knew the vote was in trouble just before they rang the bells to call lawmakers to the chamber.
I heard rumblings that the GOP thought it could deliver eighty-some Republican votes. And that vote could increase on the floor.
But as soon as the vote began, I received the following, cryptic message from a GOP source.
"Pelosi's partisan speech has caused our members to go berserk and may cost us any remaining chance to pass the bill."
Republicans were never high on voting for this bill. But I wondered if this message about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s floor speech could serve as a fig leaf if Republicans didn’t deliver some goods..
The timing seemed premature. But the signal was prescient about the bill’s demise.
Not long after the vote, a toddler accompanied her parents on a tour of the U.S. Capitol. The three-year-old gleefully pushed her own stroller across the marble floors of Statuary Hall in the House wing of the building.
She had a ball. Even as chaos unfolded just steps away from her.
Then Steny Hoyer rounded a corner with a wall of reporters, camera crews and photographers in tow. The financial emergency bailout bill just melted down. And a galloping squadron of reporters barked at Hoyer to tell them what went wrong.
Oblivious, the girl ran her stroller around in circles. And the herd nearly stampeded her had an astute adult not scooped her up a nanosecond before the rolling throng bowled through the Capitol.
The toddler might not have been AIG or Bear Stearns. But after the $700 billion bill imploded, the tot become the only person to secure a Congressional bailout Monday.
Chad Pergram is FOX News' senior producer for the House of Representatives. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Congress.