Five for Fighting

The Speaker’s Lobby: Five for Fighting

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

26 March 2009


Wayne Gretzky had Marty McSorley. Washington Capitals phenom Alex Ovechkin has Donald Brashear. And President Obama has White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.


In hockey, McSorley and Brashear are known as enforcers. Hulking bruisers who drop their gloves to fight or crunch an opponent with a bone-rattling check if someone molests the superstar. And even if the enforcer doesn’t touch you, just the threat of punishment meted out by the enforcer is often enough to give the Gretzskys and Ovechkins a little more open ice to operate on.


President Obama paid a rare visit to the Capitol Wednesday to press Senate Democrats to preserve his budget priorities on health care, environmental policy and the deficit. Meantime across Capitol Hill, the House Budget Committee met in a day-long session to prep a spending blueprint authored by chairman John Spratt (D-SC) Spratt’s plan trimmed $150 billion in spending from Mr. Obama’s budget and made deeper dents in the deficit over the next five years.


And that’s why President Obama’s enforcer skated through the House Democrats crease around 7:15 pm.


On Wednesday morning, the Budget Committee trudged through scores of amendments preparing a final version of the budget to take to the House floor next week. This session is known as a “markup” where lawmakers slice through the entire measure line by line and settle on final language. Most major markups are harrowing to begin with. But markup day in the House Budget Committee is particularly excruciating. The session starts early in the morning and bleeds deep into the night, often past the witching hour.


By evening, most committee members started to look spacey. Many, like Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) loosened their ties and ditched their suit coats.


“I’d rather stick needles in my eyeballs,” McGovern moaned as the markup entered its eighth hour.


Around dinner time, Budget Committee staff members wheeled in tins of rotisserie chicken, orzo pasta, soda and cookies. One cardboard box remained in the hall, the words “Mash Gravy” scribbled in Sharpie on its side. Dan Turton, the former Majority Staff Director of the House Rules Committee and now the Obama Administration’s House liaison, patrolled the hall outside the hearing room, his cell phone affixed to his ear. But he was merely holding the ice when the Enforcer came over the boards to take his shift.


“He’s there just to let his people know he’s watching them,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), pointing to his eyes with his index and middle fingers.


Emanuel, known for his gritty Chicago politics and credited with helping Democrats wrest control of the House from Republicans in 2006, entered the hearing room through the public entrance and walked directly up to the dais. There he sat between Reps. Chet Edwards (D-TX) and Bobby Scott (D-VA), chatting and laughing. A bit later, Emanuel left the dais, returned to the hallway and moved toward a doorway reserved for Members and staff.


“I just miss my voting card,” Emanuel said, having only just resigned from the House in early January.


Word got around Emanuel brought with him four cakes (apparently from Trader Joe’s) for weary lawmakers and aides to munch on as they staggered through the markup.


Indeed, an enforcer doesn’t always need to fight or deliver an open-ice check. But like Marty McSorley and Donald Brashear, the mere presence of an enforcer on the ice can be intimidating enough. And particularly disarming when the enforcer brings along sweets to fill rumbling stomachs.


Emanuel rarely shied away from reporters during his years in the House. But Wednesday night, he tried to deflect questions about his presence and the reasons for the cakes as he walked down the corridor.


“I just wanted to thank everyone for their hard work,” Emanuel explained about the cakes.


But the work didn’t seem that hard. Just arduous as lawmakers slogged through amendments. The fate of an amendment offered by freshman Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) is a case study in the committee’s rhythm throughout the day, repeatedly dispensing with GOP amendments on a party line vote.


Lummis proposed banning any budget money from going toward President Obama’s environmental initiative known as cap and trade. In an effort to curb emissions, Mr. Obama would penalize polluters and offer economic incentives for firms that pollute less.


After several minutes of spirited debate, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) demanded a roll call vote on the amendment. But failure it was pre-ordained to fail. The committee clerk ticked off the names of the committee members in rote fashion, all Republicans voting in favor of Lummis’s proposal, all Democrats against. Even though the outcome was a forgone conclusion, Rep. John Campbell (R-CA) buzzed into the room at the last minute to make sure he voted in favor of Lummis’ idea.


“The clerk will read the tally,” instructed Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, as though the outcome was in question.


“Fifteen yeas and 24 nays,” reported the clerk.


“The no’s are?” inquired Spratt, as though it really mattered.


Lummis, enduring her first budget markup, lamented the Groundhog Day feel to the session.


“Every single vote, every single vote has been along party lines. I didn’t know the partisanship was this blatant,” she said.


While a lot of members dread budget markup day, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) seemed particularly energized. He suggested that battles in the markup crystallized the fundamental differences between Democrats and Republicans


“I like it because it’s the fundamental fight. It’s what the parties are for,” he said. “We’re for one thing. They’re for another.”


Despite Jordan’s enthusiasm for the process, he let slip that he appreciated how labor-intensive the exercise was.


“You going to be here for the whole, crazy fight or are you smart enough to leave?” he asked.


A little later, it was time for President Obama’s enforcer to leave the markup. Rahm Emanuel walked briskly toward a staircase, a coterie of reporters in tow. And the usually loquacious Chief of Staff remained mum about the late-night shift he skated on the Congressional ice rink.


“You do know how the movie ends,” Emanuel shouted at reporters as he negotiated the steps.


Republicans knew they were stymied by the Democrats, even as they railed against the record spending proposed by the President.


“I don’t know how it ends,” conceded Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX). “I just know it’s a tragedy.”


– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Congress.