A Spoonful of Sugar

The Speaker’s Lobby: A Spoonful of Sugar

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

22 July 2009

The House of Representatives is a lot different with a woman in charge.

And the woman in question presided over the House chamber with aplomb Tuesday afternoon. More than 400 of the country’s most powerful lawmakers awaited her command. Democrats and Republicans alike obediently took their seats in a rare scene of bipartisan cooperation.

“Look up this way,” she ordered. They all complied.

“Everybody smile!” the woman implored from her perch in the public viewing gallery, overlooking the House floor. That command hushed the throng. A few seconds later, the shutter on a camera mounted on a railing rapidly snapped four panoramic pictures of lawmakers assembled inside the chamber.

“And we’re done!” the female photographer shouted.

A cheer erupted from the House floor like lawmakers just approved a landmark piece of legislation. And quickly, the photographer completed her photo shoot, having captured the official photo of the 111th Congress.

If only House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) could wield as much power over the rank and file as that female photographer. If only Pelosi could garner such cooperation from moderate and conservative members of her own party to score the necessary votes for a massive health care reform package.

The photographer had it easy.

Democratic Congressional leaders are putting a happy face on chances for their health care reform measure. But the fact of the matter is, they don’t have the votes. Yet. That’s mainly because conservative, so-called “Blue Dog” Democrats are balking at the timing of the legislation, the cost and proposed tax increases. So with a self-imposed deadline of approving the bill before the August recess, Democrats are rifling through the Congressional apothecary to find the right prescription to convince skeptical lawmakers to vote for the bill.

“A bipartisan majority has formed against the current proposal,” said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA).

Earlier this year, lawmakers said they were afflicted with “bailout fatigue.” That’s the syndrome associated with government rescue packages and bailouts to boost sagging industries. Today, moderate Democrats are be suffering from “climate bill fatigue.” Just last month, Pelosi secured the backing of many Blue Dog Democrats to approve the controversial climate-energy bill, colloquially known as “cap and trade.” It was the biggest legislative win of Pelosi’s speakership. But Republicans believe that obedience could cost the speaker on health care reform.

“There are Democrats who feel there were a lot of arms broken after the cap and trade bill,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH). “And there are no more arms to be broken.”

Rep. Jason Altmire (D-PA) is a Blue Dog who didn’t support the climate bill. He says many of his Blue Dog colleagues still feel the sting of that vote.

“A lot of people who voted yes did not receive a hero’s welcome,” Altmire said of lawmakers who incurred the wrath of voters over the July 4th recess. “If you’re a member who voted for cap and trade and had a bad experience back home, you’re probably not looking forward to a bad vote on a health care bill that’s not going to go anywhere in the Senate.”

But Democratic leaders insist the bill is coming together.

“The House is on target to pass this legislation on July 29th, which is next Wednesday,” declared House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-CT).

That may be. But there remain a lot of unhappy Democrats who are ready to buck the leadership on what could be the most-monumental piece of legislation to move through Congress in 40 years.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) realizes the daunting task awaiting him, rounding up the necessary votes. He doesn’t want to face a vote where he’s forced to lug kicking and screaming lawmakers across the finish line.

“If we can do it next week without consensus or wait a week and do it with consensus, I’d rather wait a week,” Clyburn said.

But there’s plenty of kicking and screaming now. And I observed two scenes of children kicking and screaming here on Capitol Hill recently that could serve as models for Democrats to secure the necessary votes.

One day a mother on a tour of the Capitol stopped outside the Speaker’s Office. Her unruly four-year-old son wore a harness with a tether. A Congressional aide was about to escort them down a flight of circular steps to the first floor. But the child suffered a meltdown at the sight of the steps. They are steep and treacherous. I’ve even worried about the safety of those steps. The son bawled. He screeched. He tried to run away from his mother into the Rotunda. The steps frightened him. And he simply wasn’t going to have anything to do with them.

This confounded the aide about what to do.

“It’s the only way down,” he told the mother.

Only it wasn’t.

I was merely an innocent bystander, having chatted up one of Pelosi’s aides a few minutes before. But I had an idea. There’s a elevator just inside the alcove that leads to the Speaker’s Office. The rookie aide probably wasn’t aware of that. I went into the Speaker’s Office and explained the situation to another staffer and a police officer. They said it would be fine if the family rode the elevator down. I told the mother and the aide. Suddenly the sobs stopped. And the child and his mother successfully traversed to the first floor of the Capitol.

Taking the steps were a non-negotiable for child. He made that known. But the aide giving the tour didn’t see an alternative.

In other words, Blue Dogs have made known their non-negotiables. Now President Obama and Democratic leaders need to seek a comfort level for wary lawmakers on the health bill.

On Monday, I waited to meet a Senate aide at Cups, a coffee shop in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building. There, another child melted down while on a tour with her parents led by two Senate staffers. The mom wanted the little girl to be part of a picture with the staffers and the rest of the family. But her daughter wouldn’t stand for it. Her eyes welled up. Tears dripped down her puffy red cheeks. She was just not getting in that picture.  

“Either you get in the picture and do it or no ice cream,” threatened the mother. The girl continued sobbing.

The female staffer knelt to console the child, pushing strands of blonde hair away from the girl’s face.

“Come on, there’s no crying in the Senate,” she said gently, trying to coax the girl to join them for the picture.

This calmed the little girl. The aide showed the tyke empathy. But she also suggested that “this is not the way we behave here. Come along and do it our way.”

Finally the girl wiped her eyes and posed for the picture.

In a way, the one-two combination worked. The mom warned her daughter she wouldn’t receive ice cream. If they really wanted to be tough, President Obama and Pelosi could use outright threats to bring skeptical members on board. They could withhold campaign funds. Strip lawmakers of plum committee assignments. But in the case of the little girl, the aide led by example. We don’t cry here in the Senate. And you shouldn’t either. That set the bar. And the little girl posed for the picture.

With health care, Democrats could set expectations. You’re a Democratic lawmaker. This is a priority of a Democratic president. Are you really going to buck us on this?

On the most vexing of bills, Congressional leaders often add “sweeteners” to lure the final, essential lawmakers to vote for the measures. This trick isn’t new. Legendary majority whip Mary Poppins perfected this method by adding a “spoonful of sugar” to help “the medicine go down.”

On the health care bill, Blue Dog Democrats know President Obama and Nancy Pelosi want them to swallow some nasty legislative cough syrup. They know it won’t be pleasant. And the president and speaker are scrambling to find an elusive spoonful of sugar.

– 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.