The Speaker’s Lobby: Vote-a-Rama

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

19 June 2009


Congress is wrestling with reforming the nation’s health care system. Prevention is one of the keys to solving America’s growing epidemics of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.


And Thursday, a small band of Democrats may have unwittingly stumbled upon a way to help Americans get enough exercise. They called a news conference on the third floor of the Capitol to discuss health reform just as Republicans lurched into a parliamentary exercise in the chamber downstairs on the second floor. Republicans forced the House to take a one-day record of 53 roll call votes, shattering the previous mark of 40 set in 1988.


With most votes wedged up back-to-back and limited to only five-minutes in length, the Democratic and Republican cloakrooms advised lawmakers to stick close to the chamber. Undaunted, the group of Democrats forged ahead with their press conference. Lawmakers tag-teamed the briefing like professional wrestlers crawling in and out of the ring.


Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) began the forum at 11:07 am with Reps. Jay Inslee (D-WA), Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) and Ron Kind (D-WI) in tow. The House bells rang at 11:11 am signaling the next vote. So Inslee and Higgins slipped out, switching with Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY), fresh from the House floor. Welch and Pomeroy departed at 11:12 and Kind took the lectern. Welch and Pomeroy returned to the news conference at 11:17 and Higgins tapped out to go vote. At 11:18, Rep. Zack Space (D-OH) made a cameo appearance, and Kind ran back downstairs. Kind circled back at 11:19 while an aide to Jay Inslee tried in vain to catch her boss’s attention to remind him to head to the chamber.


“He has to vote,” she whispered nervously, looking at her wristwatch.


Inslee finally hustled downstairs at 11:23 alongside Pomeroy. Their relief driver was Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) who appeared at 11:25. Inslee and Pomeroy reappeared at 11:27.


All the while, Republicans ordered vote after vote after vote on a slate of nearly 30 amendments to a bill funding the departments of Commerce and Justice and paying for science programs.


The health benefits of climbing the flight of 44 marble steps to complete the circuit each time wasn’t lost on the Democrats.


“That was an aerobic press conference. Lots of stair climbing,” Pomeroy huffed. “This is a healthy press conference.”


So perhaps the key to prevention is to schedule votes and a simultaneous press conference at least one floor apart. But that was the most dynamic House members would be all day. The unprecedented wave of 53 votes devoured nearly eight consecutive hours. Tethered to the floor, most lawmakers milled about or slumped in seats in the chamber.  


“I have read four papers,” said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), known for sifting through news articles in the Speaker’s Lobby when the House calls a wave of votes. “ I know all there is to know. I’ve read everything there is to read.”


Going into Thursday, the House had voted 355 times this year. That figure swelled to 408 with Thursday’s vote-a-rama, with the 53 votes accounting for nearly a quarter of all votes taken this year.


Republicans demanded the votes because they were incensed at what they believe was unfair treatment meted out by Democrats on the same legislation Tuesday night. The majority alleged the GOP was dawdling and chewing up too much time on the measure. Republicans argued they wanted to move more deliberately. So Democrats pulled the legislation off the floor and curbed the number of amendments in order.


Thursday, Republicans called for vote after vote on amendments. After they completed the first set of nearly 30 votes, the GOP demanded revotes on those provisions. Some amendments even received a hat trick of votes, with Republicans then ordering revotes to the revotes of original votes.


“This is stupid,” snorted one lawmaker.


“It is fortunate that lots people were here today,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO). “It would have ruined our voting percentages.”


Boucher (D-VA) remarked that the vote-a-rama actually helped boost his attendance record.


“I have missed some votes here and there. So this helps repair my voting average,” Boucher said.


A number of lawmakers missed many or all of the votes. Among them were Reps. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) and John Sullivan (R-OK). Both recently checked themselves into medical rehabilitation facilities. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) had surgery earlier this week Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) was absent.


With the marathon requiring lawmakers to hang close to the floor, many brought constituents or lobbyists to the Rayburn Room, just steps to the House chamber. Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) posed for a picture with school children. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL) sipped cans of Country Time Lemonade with aides. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) chatted up the Navy brass. The vote-a-rama forced Members of Congress to cancel news conferences and hearings, the staples of most days on Capitol Hill. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) ditched his weekly news briefing with reporters. The House Financial Services Committee canned a hearing with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner about the Obama Administration’s new financial regulation oversight plan.


The vote-a-thon wasn’t without some drama. In the early afternoon, lawmakers initially defeated an amendment to ban the government from spending any money to close the prison. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) authored the provision. And the House voted down Lewis’s proposal was 216-212.


But the problem is that the House considered Lewis’s plan under a condition that allows the six delegates to Congress from five U.S. territories and the District of Columbia to vote. All of those members voted against Lewis’s amendment. Since the vote outcome was within the margin of six votes, it’s possible those members could have determined the fate of Lewis’s idea.


That triggers a re-vote anytime the outcome falls within that six-member margin and those members of Congress vote.


So the House voted again on Lewis’s proposal. The House again defeated the Guantanamo Bay amendment, but only by one vote, 213-212.


There were also some light-hearted moments. The House took a “seventh-inning stretch” to present the Congressional baseball trophy to Democrats. Democrats defeated the Republicans in the annual charity baseball game at Nationals Stadium Wednesday night, 15-10. Democrats hadn’t won the game since 2000. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) manages the GOP squad. He took a moment to congratulate the Democrats and even took a swipe at Democrats for yanking the spending measure off the floor earlier in the week.


“The Democrats uncharacteristically played like Republicans. They played as a team. They even played by the rules,” Barton laughed.


At the end of the day, the already unusual session finally devolved into one of the most bizarre scenes in recent memory. The House finally approved the spending bill 259-157 with Republicans trying to force another procedural vote. Rep. Tim Holden (D-PA) had presided over the chamber over the final few hours of votes. But Holden quickly recessed the House and abandoned the Speaker’s chair on the dais.


That left Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) screaming at an empty Speaker’s chair, trying to gain the attention of a presiding officer that wasn’t there.


The maneuver to recess apparently caught the operators of government-controlled cameras in the House chamber (which provide video of the House floor to C-SPAN and other news organizations) off guard. The televised feed revealed the strange scene of no one in the Speaker’s chair while Republicans crowed and tried to make procedural motions.


Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) then crept up on the rostrum as though he was thinking of seizing control of the gavel.


Historically, only members of the majority party preside over the House. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) presides sporadically. Most of those duties are usually delegated to another House Democrat.


“We are not happy about that,” said a senior House Democratic source about Issa’s antics. “He should not have done that.”


For his part, Issa contends he was not trying to take the presiding officer’s chair.


“I just wanted to see if (Holden) fell down or something,” he said.


When asked what it felt like to be back on the dais, Issa harkened back to when Republicans controlled the House.


“Been there, done that,” Issa said. “But it felt like old times.”


Just then, Issa’s cell phone went off. The ring tone? The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.”


– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill. The Speaker’s Lobby is a hallway behind the House chamber where lawmakers, aides and journalists gather during votes.