The Speaker's Lobby: The Fujiwhara Effect
By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
31 July 2009
I don't know if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is an audiophile. But I do know the speaker got an upgrade this week.
She went from mono to stereo.
For days, Pelosi listened in mono as conservative, "Blue Dog" House Democrats (fiscally-conservative lawmakers who mostly represent Republican and rural areas) carped about the cost of the major health care reform package she hopes to advance through the House soon.
On Wednesday, Rep. Mike Ross (D-AR) announced that he and three other Blue Dogs carved a deal to slash the cost of the legislation, protect small businesses and curb the government's potential to run many health insurance plans. The agreement seemingly untangled a Gordian knot that bound the Energy and Commerce Committee from writing its version of a health reform bill.
And that's when Pelosi's new sound system arrived. As soon as Ross announced the pact, the most-liberal members of the House Democratic Caucus upbraided the speaker for caving to the conservative Blue Dog demands.
"We're going to fight this with every bit of our strength that we have," promised Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-CA).
"We're at a point of no retreat. And we have to hold the line," said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), who pleaded for a "public option." That's a system where some people would depend on the government for their health coverage.
"If it's not there, we're not there," Grijalva warned.
CBC member Danny Davis (D-IL), who represents part of Chicago, fretted that bowing to the Blue Dog demands cheated big cities.
"I understand rural America. I grew up in rural America. And I want to make sure that rural America's taken care of," said Davis. "But not at the expense of urban America."
Fifty-five of the most-liberal Democrats in the House, representing the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Progressive Caucus, then presented the speaker with a letter declaring the Blue Dog agreement "fundamentally unacceptable" and a "large step backwards."
Pelosi was now listening in stereo. Hearing it in both channels. From the left and the right of her caucus.
But the speaker tried to cast doubts that there even was a left and right among House Democrats.
"I don't see it as different wings," Pelosi said. "We are all part of the same party."
Yet later, in the same press conference, the speaker celebrated the distinctiveness of the 256 House Democrats.
"We have tremendous diversity, whether it is generational, geographic, philosophical, ethnic, gender. You name it. And all of these forces come to bear. It is a great kaleidoscope," Pelosi said.
But mollifying those factions won't be easy.
Legislative gales now pelt the Capitol on the health care front. And there's a lot political convection in the atmosphere as conservative Democrats rotate one way and liberal Democrats spin another.
Meteorologists would call this "The Fujiwhara Effect."
The Fujiwhara Effect is when two cyclonic systems, often hurricanes, start to pinwheel around each other. The storms appear as though they're square-dancing. In other words, the storms themselves rotate. But the two systems also orbit one another. And on Capitol Hill, liberal and conservative Democratic vortices pirouette around each other, threatening to doom the health care bill.
When Mike Ross crafted an agreement Wednesday, the progressives cried foul.
"He never even clued us in," fumed a liberal, western lawmaker about the arrangement Ross made with Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA).
"Now you know how we feel," countered a Blue Dog Democrat who wished to remain anonymous.
And late Wednesday, one of the four Blue Dog signatories to the agreement even conceded that he might not vote for the bill in committee.
Seven Blue Dog Democrats sit on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Waxman brought four of them on board. A loss of only one of the those lawmakers could stall the measure in committee. By Thursday night, rumors abounded at the Capitol that one of the four lawmakers jumped ship.
"That's totally false," declared one Congressman familiar with the terms of the agreement.
The next 24 hours represent an endgame for House Democrats. They could certainly torpedo the committee process and bypass the Energy and Commerce panel. But doing so would cost them almost any Blue Dog support. So it's essential they harness the Blue Dogs without further alienating the liberals.
Perhaps Nancy Pelosi can swipe a page from President Obama's playbook to diffuse the tension.
Anyone up for a beer?
- 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.