The Final Vote of the 111th Congress

Why were they holding open the vote?

After days of backroom negotiations and threats of lugging Congress back into session after Christmas, the jets were revved up, the train tickets were purchased, the cars were packed. Congress was about to conclude a frenetic, lame duck session just in time for Christmas and "traverse afar."

You know, field and fountain. Moor and mountain. All of that.

But not just yet.

The hold-up was an impasse over compensating 9-11 first responders for their health benefits. This was the sole bill keeping Members of Congress from tidings of comfort and joy back in their Congressional districts.

Finally, there was a deal Wednesday. So when the House launched its vote at 4:20 pm with well over 100 lawmakers having already skipped town, most thought they'd wrap the vote up by 4:40 and finish business by 5 pm. After all, votes in the House only consume 15 or 20 minutes. And this package was now greased for passage.

That was the case until the tally boards in the U.S. House chamber locked up around 4:50 pm, arrested at 204 yeas to 60 nays.

The total on the tally boards sat. At first for a minute. Which ballooned into a few minutes. Which then swelled to 10 and 20 minutes.

Even though the vote was still open, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) took the lectern around 5:16 pm and forlornly stared at the dais.

"Parliamentary inquiry?" Gohmert asked of Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) who presided over the House. Edwards did not respond to Gohmert as he sought an answer why the moments were ticking away.

The clock pushed 5:30. The vote had now been open an hour and ten minutes. The longest vote in House history is two hours and 55 minutes. That's a long way to go. But this vote was more than odd.

So much for the folks who threatened to abandon Washington and race out of here. What was stalling this? Especially since this bill was essentially passed. Many wanted Edwards to just close the vote and get on with it.

The bouquet of jet fuel is a powerful essence on Capitol Hill. As soon as members think there's a chance they can hit the exits for a long Congressional break, the jet fuel aroma permeates the Capitol. And lawmakers grow antsy.

The scent certainly wafted through the air Wednesday afternoon. But not so much because lawmakers were hell-bent on escaping Washington. Instead, it was to accommodate just one lawmaker flying in exclusively for this vote.

The 9-11 vote was crucial to her. And even more critical to many of the constituents she represents.

At 5:32 pm, Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH) strolled into the chamber. Without removing his long trench coat, Austria voted aye. The tally board flipped to 205-60, the first time it moved in more than 40 minutes.

Austria crossed the chamber to the Republican side.

"You weren't the one we were waiting on," said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) to Austria.

Conaway was right.

And a moment later, in the back of the chamber appeared Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY). Velazquez voted yes. The tally board advanced to 206-60. And Edwards closed the vote at 5:36 pm. One hour and 16 minutes after it began.

The House is currently composed of 434 members with one vacancy. And 168 members didn't vote Wednesday, including Speaker-elect John Boehner (R-OH). But Velazquez wasn't about to be one of 168 MIA members. And especially not on this vote. Instead, Velazquez rushed back to Washington from her native Puerto Rico where the congresswoman was caring for her 90-year-old mother, stricken with bleeding ulcers.

Velazquez landed at Dulles International Airport in the Washington suburbs around 4:20 pm. Right about the time the vote started. Fighting DC's notorious rush hour traffic, the New York Democrat then raced to the Capitol and entered the building wearing track pants, New Balance running shoes and no coat. Velazquez voted and then turned to leave, visibly shaken, her eyes moist from tears.

I caught Velazquez just before she headed back down the House steps and asked why it was so essential for her to come back.

"I was torn between two important things that I care about," said Velazquez, choking back tears. "My mother and the 9-11 responders."

Velazquez said she was now going back to San Juan to be with her mother. And she stepped back into the chill, still lacking a coat.

Velazquez's district hopscotches across three of New York's five boroughs. It snakes from Manhattan's Lower East Side through Chinatown and then across the East River to Brooklyn and Queens. Many who worked at the World Trade Center or responded there live in Velazquez's district. And these are the people who now suffer from cancer and a panoply of illnesses spurred by the cloud of toxic dust that billowed out of Ground Zero in the wake of the Twin Towers' collapse.

Velazquez's vote wasn't pivotal to pass the bill. But she just wanted to be on record to support those who gave so much on September 11th.

No one in Congress is guaranteed a leadership position, a committee assignment, an earmark or any other perk. But the one irrevocable right afforded any Member of Congress is their vote on the House or Senate floor. And most lawmakers go to great lengths not to miss.

But lots of people were missing Wednesday. And there was worry that the waning attendance in the House could torpedo the legislation.

"We're a little thin," conceded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) Wednesday morning after word spread through the Capitol that as many as 140 House members may be absent.

But that wasn't the first problem imperiling the 9-11 legislation.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) threatened to filibuster the bill unless lawmakers sliced the pricetag. Other Republicans predicted there was potential for waste, fraud and abuse and argued for better accounting.

Pelosi challenged Coburn without calling him out by name.

"I've never understood why one senator can trump the wishes of 99 others," Pelosi fumed.

Meantime across the building, the race was on to craft an agreement. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) huddled with Coburn in an effort to secure a deal, hopefully before too many House members slipped away.

If Coburn and other GOP opponents stuck to their guns, they could kill the bill. Or potentially force both chambers of Congress to return after Christmas. In other words, the Senate could vote to cut off a threatened filibuster on the measure. But that would take two days, putting lawmakers at the Capitol on Christmas Eve. That's a scenario eerily reminiscent of the health care vote last year. Even if the Senate cut off debate, there would still be as much as 30 hours of debate after that.

So if the Senate didn't pass the bill until early next week, this legislation was far from going to President Obama for his signature. The House wasn't in sync yet with the Senate. And there were questions as to whether Pelosi would summon already cantankerous lawmakers back to Washington AFTER Christmas.

Said the night wind to the little lamb, do you see what I see? A big problem.

On Tuesday night, Rep. Phil Hare (D-IL) was sprawled on a bench in the empty Capitol Rotunda. The Congressman held a cell phone to his ear and explained to his wife why he wouldn't be on the 9:30 pm flight home. Rep.-elect Bobby Schilling (R-IL) defeated Hare last month. But Hare's lame-duck status didn't inhibit him from sticking around until Congress finished the 9-11 legislation.

"Christmas is my favorite holiday of the year but this is much more important. If they want me here Christmas Eve night, I'll be here Christmas Eve night," Hare said. "I'll be here until midnight January 3rd if they need me."

And you thought only Heat Miser was capable of canceling Christmas.

So on Wednesday, the senators feverishly brokered a pact to get lawmakers home before the holiday. And in the end, the Senate approved the new, cheaper bill by voice vote. In fact Kirsten Gillibrand later praised Coburn later for improving the legislation.

Now to the House. But with all the attrition, there was concern the House might not muster 218 members to constitute a quorum. A failure to do so would invalidate any action the House might take. This was the worst case scenario. Imagine if the bill disintegrates in the House, after all of the dickering in the Senate.

"We were sweating it," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) who represents Manhattan. "We were worried they didn't have a quorum."

Just before the House vote, dozens of first responders from New York City trudged up the steps to the viewing gallery on the third floor of the Capitol to watch the House proceedings. Many sported jackets emblazoned with the logo "FDNY." A woman wore a T-shirt with the words "We were there" etched across an image of the Twin Towers.

One firefighter with the emblem of an ambulance stitched into his jacket, remembered his comrades who perished on 9-11 as he slogged up the stairs.

"As though we didn't climb enough stairs that day," he muttered to a colleague, winded by the hike.

Finally at 4:38 pm, 28 minutes into the vote, the tally boards flashed 172-46. The first responders seated in the gallery rose from their seats and whooped and applauded. The House had just crossed the 218 vote threshold, establishing a quorum. And the bill was now on cruise control toward passage.

This would be the last vote of the 111th Congress. And the final vote of a frenzied, controversial lame-duck session. Supporters of the 9-11 bill knew they had to finish this legislation now. It would probably die in a GOP-led House. Nearly all votes against the bill came from Republicans. Only one Democrat opposed it, Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS).

And as the House completed its business on the floor, the shift of power was already underway.

The Rayburn Room just off the House floor served as a staging area as Pelosi and Boehner switched offices.

Stacks of cardboard storage boxes lined the walls. Some featured Sharpie notations that read "Pelosi, H-204" or "Pending Invitations/Regrets Dec.‘10-March '11." Swivel office chairs, lemon-yellow chaise lounges and bookshelves were all tagged with the names of either Boehner or Pelosi advisers and room numbers, designating their future destinations.

The tableau was reminiscent of the final scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." That's where a no-name, government employee stows the Ark of the Covenant in a gigantic government warehouse, amid aisles and aisles of other non-descript boxes and crates.

The work of legislating was done for the moment. Now it was up to the workers to prepare the Capitol for the 112th Congress that starts on January 5th at noon.

Only hours later, the workers stripped away one of the last legacies of the 111th Congress. Two tiny holes now permeated the concrete blocks that formed an archway, leading to the Speaker's Office.

Those holes once supported a nameplate that read "Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi."