The Silence of the Lambs

The Speaker’s Lobby: The Silence of the Lambs

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

05 August 2009

The National Weather Service predicts it will be a little cooler than normal in Dover, OH the next few days. At least meteorologically speaking. The highs through Friday are forecast to be in the low to mid-80s.

In Seymour, IN, the Weather Service predicts highs in the mid-80s. And there’s a chance of thunderstorms.

Again, speaking meteorologically, of course.

It will be a scorcher in Prescott, AR. The mercury could kiss the upper 90s.And in Murfreesboro, TN, the temperature is expected to flirt with 90.

However, the political temperatures will be much hotter. And expect unstable political air to spawn storms.

Meantime, the political weather in Salt Lake City, UT, Savannah, GA and Napoleonville, LA, will be rather calm.

Reps. Zack Space (D-OH), Baron Hill (D-IN), Mike Ross (D-AR) and Bart Gordon (D-TN) reside respectively in Dover, OH, Seymour, IN, Prescott, AR and Murfreesboro, TN. They’re the four conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats who voted for a health care reform plan approved late last week by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Reps. Jim Matheson (D-UT), John Barrow (D-GA) and Charlie Melancon (D-LA) are the three Blue Dogs on the committee who didn’t back the plan. They of course hang their hats in Salt Lake City, UT, Savannah, GA and Napoleonville, LA. But courting the foursome of Space, Hill, Ross and Gordon was essential to driving the controversial health plan out of the committee. Otherwise, the bill remained in a stasis. And bypassing the usual committee process would have inflamed the entire 52-member Blue Dog Coalition, which possesses the votes to torpedo the health care bill on the House floor.

Back in places like rural Ohio and southeastern Indiana, swing voters are trained on  Space and Hill. And so is the National Republican Congressional Committee, the panel charged with unseating Democrats and electing Republicans to the House. They’re girding for battle with these two, who they believed were ripe for the picking anyway. But the GOP calculates that their support for a health care bill, coupled with a tough vote on June’s climate change package could further imperil these lawmakers.

“He never should have voted for cap and trade,” fretted a veteran, moderate Democrat about Space’s vote for the climate bill, commonly referred to as cap and trade. “He could lose his race on that vote alone, to say nothing of health care.”

Like Space, the unnamed lawmaker represents a similar, rural, Midwestern Congressional district, teaming with conservative undertones. These are districts where a handful of political miscalculations could trigger a GOP victory over the Democratic incumbent.

“Listen, (White House Chief of Staff) Rahm (Emanuel) could have protected him here in the House,” the unnamed lawmaker continued. “But Rahm isn’t here now. (House Speaker) Nancy (Pelosi) isn’t looking out for a guy like Zack when she needs the votes.”

Baron Hill could potentially face similar vulnerabilities. Hill won his seat in a 1998 squeaker with 51 percent of the vote. Hill then survived a 2002 challenge by former Rep. Mike Sodrel (R-IN), again netting just 51 percent of the vote. Sodrel finally toppled Hill in 2004. Then Hill recaptured the seat with another nail biter in 2006. Republicans have Hill well in their crosshairs for 2010.

Which brings us to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Pelosi has repeatedly called the climate change measure her legislative touchstone. Health care reform is a marquee issue for both the speaker and President Obama. Their approaches on both counts are controversial and unpopular with Republicans and some Democrats. But at the end of the day, it’s about pragmatism. And both Pelosi and Mr. Obama have to make a practical judgment: what good are these massive majorities in both the House and Senate if you can’t execute your primary policy initiatives the way you see fit? Both Pelosi and the president were elected to lead. Right or wrong, they believe climate change and reforming health care are hallmark issues. They think they have answers to both problems. Which, realistically speaking, means they could be willing to sacrifice seats in the bloated Democratic majority Pelosi now presides over in the House.

Democrats now command a 78-seat margin (256-178) in the 434-member House (there’s one vacancy due to the resignation of former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-CA, who joined the State Department). During the 12-year Republican House reign, the GOP never had more than a 30-seat margin over the Democrats. In 2000, the Republican majority dwindled to a mere 12-seat advantage.

Such a tight-knit coalition made the House an easier place to govern for the likes of former House Speakers Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX). But the razor-thin margins also prevented them from approving “legacy” bills on immigration reform and the partial privatization of Social Security. Those measures would have been tough votes for sure. But despite President Bush’s initiative on both issues, neither issue ever ripened. And the GOP leadership never had to call tough votes on either topic.

Pelosi and President Obama have to decide what’s more valuable to them: maintaining seats held by the likes of Space and Hill or pushing their agenda. It’s a hard pick. But leaders are chosen to govern, not just sit on fat majorities.

Victories by moderates like Space and Hill are the reason Democrats seized control of the House in 2006 and ballooned that majority last year. Winning with conservative Democrats in otherwise “red” areas gave Pelosi and the president the essential political cushion to move sweeping bills on climate and health care reform. And if some of those lawmakers sacrifice their seats by taking tough votes for the leadership, so be it.

No one really knows whether the climate bill will make a difference with the environment. And no one knows whether the Obama-Pelosi health care drive is the right prescription to repair the system. But one thing is clear: if both the climate bill and the health care plan become law, President Obama and Speaker Pelosi will have scored their political victories on the backs of Congressional lambs. That’s not to say that lawmakers like Space, Hill or dozens of other Democrats caught in the Republican crosshairs might not survive on their own. But some may be willing to forsake their seats to support the president and the speaker.

And here’s the question for Democrats who voted for the climate change package and may cast a vote in favor of health care reform: was their vote a decision of conscience and re-election be darned? Or did these Congressional lambs blindly follow Pelosi and Mr. Obama to an electoral slaughter?

– 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.