The Speaker's Lobby: The Ides of August
By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
26 July 2009
Beware the Ides of August.
William Shakespeare may have warned about the Ides of March in Julius Caesar. But when it comes to news, the Bard has nothing on the Ides of August.
Case in point is the House struggle to meet a July 31 deadline to approve a health care reform plan before Congress adjourns for the month-long August recess.
"I am not afraid of August. It's a month," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
But journalists sure are.
Every reporter worth their salt fears August. It's supposed to the dead month in the news cycle. But to quote Caesar, journalists know that big news breaking in August is "constant as the northern star." And the potential for the health care debate to drag into August is very real.
Most reporters know better than to book vacations that are slated to start immediately precisely when Congress is scheduled to adjourn. Or at the very least purchase cancellation insurance. That's because the Ides of August leave a profound mark on the annals of journalism.
Consider for a moment the major news stories that have seized the August headlines: Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. President Nixon's resignation in 1974. The death of Princess Diana in 1997. The death of Elvis Presley in 1977. Major League Baseball banishing Pete Rose in 1989. The collapse of the I-35W bridge in 2007. The bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The gigantic blackout that pitched New York City and the northeast into darkness in 2003. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
And the Democrat-on-Democrat political violence between liberal and conservative factions of Pelosi's caucus over health care threaten to emerge as this August's marquee news issue.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) already conceded it was impossible to meet the August deadline to approve a health care bill. Some House Democrats wonder if it's better to take the recess and tackle the issue in September. Still, others worry that recessing without resolving the issue could bait public criticism. And others are concerned that this quarrel could award the GOP an entire month of PR opportunities to rip the Democrats about health care, regardless of whether the House approves the measure or not.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) chairs the committee in charge of electing Democrats to the House. He says that August will "be a critical time" for lawmakers.
"You don't want to create a political vacuum when you leave Washington," Van Hollen said.
But regardless, House Democrats are seriously eyeing an August finale on health care.
"Certainly the Speaker and I both had the hope that we would be able to pass the health care bill by the time we left here on the 31st of July," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) on the floor Friday.
Hoyer then predicted the House may be in session next weekend or drift as late as August 3 or 4.
"When the bill is ready, we will go to the floor and we will win," said Pelosi.
"When" is the operative phrase.
"If we could do this tomorrow without consensus and have to wait another week and do it without consensus, I'd rather wait another week," said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC).
Note to all other journalists and Congressional aides now kicking themselves for planning an escape from Dodge City on July 31. My airline tickets read August 5.
So Democrats have major divides to bridge. Especially over chasms with the "Blue Dog" Coalition, the group of more than 50 moderate to conservative Democrats who often represent rural or otherwise "red" districts around the country.
As it stands now, nearly all Blue Dogs are poised to vote against the health care plan. Couple that with anticipated, unanimous opposition from the 178 House Republicans, and that leaves House Democrats scrambling to find votes. And that's to say nothing of other blocs of Democrats who could oppose the bill, while seeking air cover from the Blue Dogs.
"The Blue Dog caucus represents a significant and effective check against the dangers of extremism when it comes to party politics," said Blue Dog Rep. Zack Space (D-OH). "We understand that the left wing of our party doesn't have it right all of the time. We understand that the Republican party doesn't have it wrong all the time."
And Pelosi has some major fence mending to do to court Blue Dogs.
"I've been lied to," fumed leading Blue Dog Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-LA). "I've not had legitimate negotiations."
Pelosi and Co. were hearing criticism in stereo. The conservative Blue Dogs on the right. And the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on the left. The CBC warned Pelosi against delaying the legislation. And its members dismissed Blue Dog concerns about the bill's price tag.
"We must reject these spurious claims that this is something the country cannot afford," warned CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-CA).
So beware the Ides of August. The calendar is clouded as Democratic leaders struggle to conjure a solution to the impasse. Perhaps Julius Caesar isn't the best Shakespeare play to invoke with legislative conundrum. Maybe this line from Macbeth is better as the days creep closer to August: "Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and caldron bubble."
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's earned an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.