A Really Big Show

The Speaker’s Lobby: A Really Big Show

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

19 July 2009

It didn’t matter who was on tap. The Beatles. The Doors. The Jackson 5. Milton Berle. Elvis Presley. Viewers around the country tuned in to Ed Sullivan every Sunday night in the fifties, sixties and early seventies because he promised them a “really big show.”

The catchphrase was Sullivan’s hallmark. Especially because the way he dragged out “show” so it sounded a lot more like “shoe.”

So cue the band. Standby on the curtain. Heat up the lights. Congress is toiling over a massive health care reform bill. And in her role as Ed Sullivan, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is promising her own version of a “really big show.”

The speaker has been almost hyperbolic in describing the evolution of the package.

On Friday, Pelosi hailed the legislation as “pretty exciting. It’s transformational.” Later in the same press conference, the speaker again proclaimed that “it’s transformational” but added  “important and relevant.” After two committees approved their versions of the legislation, Pelosi declared “produced historic results.” At her Thursday media briefing, the speaker said that “Congress has made huge and historic progress toward health care.”

But for all of her plaudits about the health care production, Pelosi couldn’t top her description of the off-stage negotiations to shape the package.

“This is the wholesome dynamism of what we do here,” Pelosi said.

Wholesome dynamism? Unlike the Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan, Pelosi’s line didn’t spur throngs of adolescent girls in the crowd to scream and tremor. Instead, some key House Democrats are greeting the speaker’s “really big show” with grumbling and exasperation. Many of them fret the speaker will ask them to walk the plank for the second time in a month on a controversial bill that the Senate may never even vote on.

It’s setting the stage for a possible revolt in the Democratic ranks.

A case study in this comes from moderates who took a tough vote in late June on the climate-energy bill. Pelosi described climate change as her “flagship issue.” Republicans and unhappy voters stung the moderates who supported the pact with criticism over the July 4 recess. Many Democrats who swallowed hard before voting for the bill felt like they were hung out to dry.

“They stuck it to us,” said one conservative Democrat who asked not to be identified. “We took a hit on (the climate bill). And we just can’t go out and vote with her (Pelosi) every time.”

Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA) faces one of the toughest re-election campaigns of any freshman Democrat next year. After voting for the climate bill, Perriello even had an elderly man threaten him with a cane at a public event. Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-MD) is a newcomer who represents a district much like Perriello’s. Republicans are already whacking the Maryland Democrat for his vote on the climate legislation. And they’re watching closely to see how he’ll vote on health care reform.

It’s natural that first-term lawmakers from marginal districts are jittery. But many Democratic freshmen are nervous, too. A gang of 21 newly-elected lawmakers signed a letter penned by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) to protest the $544 billion surcharge on the richest Americans to help pay for the health program.

“We need to make sure not to kill the goose that will lay the golden eggs of our recovery,” the letter read. “We are concerned that this will discourage entrepreneurial activity.”

On Friday, President Obama invited the freshmen to the White House for a discussion about their concerns. But they didn’t get very far. A source familiar with the meeting described it as “unsatisfying.” That’s because the froshes only got about ten minutes with the president before they called votes in the House. The lawmakers then had to bolt back to Capitol Hill.

Democrats know that as hard as the climate-energy bill was, heath care could be harder. Eight Republicans broke ranks and sided with the Democrats on that vote. But Democrats will probably have to go it alone this time.

“I don’t see any Republicans who have interest in voting to ration care,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH).

So, Pelosi’s “wholesome dynamism” is in high gear. But moderate Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) describes the give and take a little differently.

“They are hauling us to the woodshed quite a bit,” Stupak said.

And a monumental tax increase to help pay for the plan is particularly vexing for fiscally-conscious Democrats, known as the Blue Dogs.

“The House health care legislation did not include a lot of Blue Dog thinking,” said Blue Dog Coalition member Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN). Cooper and other conservative Democrats think the leadership is racing to finish the bill by the end of the month. That’s when Congress takes off for a month-long recess.

“I’d rather be accused of ruining someone’s vacation than passing a bad piece of health care legislation,” said Cooper.

Blue Dogs seem to be the lynchpin. And one can expect another round of “wholesome dynamism” after the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) announced its cost estimates of the bill late Friday.

The CBO is stocked with non-partisan number crunchers who excelled at solving story problems in fifth grade math. They “score” the cost of Congressional programs.

The CBO calculated the measure would add $239 billion to the budget deficit over a decade. President Obama doesn’t want any health bill to balloon the deficit. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) says the legislation must be paid for.

But the three committee chairmen shepherding the health reform bill through the House called CBO’s analysis as “deficit neutral” and asserted the package “even produces a $6 billion surplus.” Democrats contend the disparity comes from proposed savings in Medicare payments to doctors. Currently the CBO can’t account for those Medicare alterations. And that’s to say nothing of non-government health “co-ops” and other private programs that Democrats are drawing up that can’t be assessed by the CBO.

But those are green eyeshade arguments. Nuances that are tough to explain to an angry pensioner wielding a cane at a potluck dinner.

Republicans immediately seized on the disparity. Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said  the measure “will increase costs, increase taxes and start to increase the size of the federal deficit in just five years.”

And you can bet that Republicans are going to make sure they are breathing down the collar of every Blue Dog and every vulnerable freshman with the CBO report.

Democrats knew they were going to get a tough score from the CBO. The Republicans did too. That’s why they immediately blasted emails lamenting the crystal-clear language that says it adds $239 billion to the deficit.

The trick to passing health care now is who wins the public relations war. The problem for Democrats is that the CBO calculations provide political cover to skeptical Blue Dog Democrats.

So the “really big show” hits the Capitol Hill stage again this week. To hear Pelosi, it will be “transformational” and “historic.” And the Blue Dog Democrats will be as apoplectic as the teenage girls screaming at the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Only they won’t be screeching for Paul, John, George and Ringo. It could be because they’re enduring a dose of “wholesome dynamism.”

– 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.