The Great Schism of 2009

The Speaker’s Lobby: The Great Schism of 2009

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

06 November 2009

Perhaps it’s fitting that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) co-hosted a luncheon at the Capitol this week to honor Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

Bartholomew leads the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church split from the Roman Catholic Church during The Great Schism of 1054. It’s one of the greatest divides in religious history.

House Democrats want to debate and pass their massive health care reform bill this weekend. And the rifts between House Democrats are so deep that this could be called The Great Schism of 2009.

Republicans spent most of Thursday excoriating the health care bill on the West Front of the Capitol. At least they were discussing health care policy. That’s because Democrats were talking about everything but health care in an effort to lug the behemoth legislation across the finish line. The off-stage discussions focused on the fissures that plague both political parties: abortion and immigration. And that’s to say nothing of a little-known issue involving something called “black liquor.”

Let’s start with abortion.

More than 190 House Democrats are members of the “pro-choice” caucus. However, there are just enough conservative Democrats who oppose abortion to blow up the bill on the floor.

“We knew there would be a flashpoint,” said Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA), who tried to bridge an impasse between pro-life and pro-choice Democrats. “(Abortion) would become a major detraction. We don’t want this bill clouded.”

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) is one of the chief architects of the bill. He insists that the legislation does not allow anyone to use federal dollars to pay for abortions. But many anti-abortion Democrats demanded even stronger language in exchange for their support on the bill. Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-IN) propounded an idea that explicitly outlaws tax dollars from paying for abortions. Ellsworth also asked for guarantees that abortion opponents always have access to a pro-life health insurance plan. Ellsworth’s proposal also makes permanent the “Hyde Amendment.” The Hyde Amendment is a measure that bans the federal funding of abortions. But Congress must reauthorize it every year. Ellsworth wants the Hyde Amendment extended to the life of the health care bill.

But despite his quest, many pro-life groups lobbed epithets at Ellsworth and accused him of selling out just to help pass the health care bill.

“I know what’s in my heart. I know what’s in my head,” Ellsworth said. “And I think the Guy upstairs knows where I am.”

Then there was immigration.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) huddled at the White House mid-week to voice their concerns that the bill could have pernicious effects on illegal immigrants.

Again, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman argued that the package had firewalls to ensure that undocumented persons would have no access to subsidies to purchase health insurance. But Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) argued that illegal immigrants would still fall in the crosshairs. Gutierrez said that some low-income, undocumented workers would be in a bind. That’s because they would be unable to purchase health coverage and be ineligible for government assistance. So Gutierrez suggested that many illegal immigrants would wind up precisely where they go now for medical care: the emergency room.

“It costs the American taxpayers money!” thundered Gutierrez about his prediction. “What other knife do you want me to plunge into my heart?”

In the end, the CHC stood down after pleading with Democratic leaders to not tighten up provisions against illegal immigrants. CHC members were fine with refusing subsidies for coverage. But they breathed a temporary sigh of relief that the legislation would not deny undocumented persons access to the health care program even if they paid their own way.

“I think we’re all there,” said former CHC Chairman Joe Baca (D-CA). “We’ve come to a common ground.”

And then there was “black liquor.”

This is not a reference to Johnnie Walker scotch. Nor “Jagermeister,” as a colleague suggested.

At 10:28 pm on Tuesday night, House Democrats unveiled a 42-page “manager’s amendment.” That’s the final alteration lawmakers make to a bill before bringing it to the floor. Lawmakers devoted seven pages of the manager’s amendment to something called “Second Generation Biofuel Producer Credit.” Which involves “black liquor.”

Black liquor is a byproduct produced in making paper. Some paper plants use it as an alternative fuel.

The manager’s amendment strikes a biofuel tax credit used by pulp and paper firms. The government saves $24 billion by eliminating the credit. That’s desperately needed revenue to help offset the cost of the health plan.

Meantime, those involved in agriculture asked why the manager’s amendment went into exhaustive detail defining “qualified feedstock.”

For the record, the manager’s amendment designates “qualified feedstock” as “any lignocellulosic or hemicelluosic matter that is available on a renewable or recurring basis or any cultivated algae, cyanobacteria or lemna.”

All spelled out in a health care bill.

Meantime, there was grousing from Republicans that they didn’t know what was in the bill.

No Republican lawmakers were expected to vote for the package. But Republicans carped that there wasn’t enough time to read through the bill. Even though Democrats met a demand to unveil the 1,990-page legislation last week. That was ahead of a voluntary commitment Democrats made to present the legislation at least 72 hours before a debate.

In fact, it could be argued that lawmakers even got a “73rd” hour to leaf through the legislation, since Democrats dropped the bill before clocks reverted to Standard Time after a summer of Daylight Saving Time last weekend.

Republicans contend the bill is “government-mandated health care.” Of course, some could say that “falling back” is part of a government-mandated time.

Congress passed the Standard Time Act in 1918. The law first established Daylight Saving Time. I’m told that in 1918 everyone was informed that they could choose the time they wanted it to be. But detractors remained unmoved. They warned that passing the Standard Time Act would put the U.S. on a “Canadian-style” time system controlled by the government.

On Friday afternoon, the Democratic leadership fished around for votes. Moderate Rep. John Tanner (D-TN) declared he would vote no. And Reps. John Adler (D-NJ) and Michael McMahon (D-NY) jumped ship as well. Both are first-term lawmakers who represent districts which swung from Republican to Democratic in 2008.

But it was elections that helped House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-NY) pocket a couple of new votes. On Tuesday, voters elected two Democrats to the House in special elections: Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) and Rep. Bill Owens (D-NY). Garamendi and Pelosi have known each other for decades. And in one of his first acts in Congress, Garamendi told reporters that he learned long ago never to count Pelosi out.

Garamendi said years ago Pelosi’s family was driving to a picnic at Garamendi’s home when their car missed a curve and flipped over. No one was hurt.

“She brushed her kids off, called for a new car and arrived about 45 minutes late,” Garamendi said. “This is one determined woman.” 

And House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-CT) was resolute that Pelosi would secure the votes.

“I feel very confident that we’re there and tomorrow evening, we’ll be celebrating a great victory,” said Larson.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) serves as special assistant to Pelosi. And he wasn’t as sure as Larson.

“We’re in shooting distance,” Van Hollen declared.

I pressed Van Hollen about whether Democrats were ready to bring the bill to the floor and try to gin up the necessary support during the vote.

“You don’t want to roll the dice on that,” Van Hollen said. “This is too important.”

As Friday afternoon dissolved into evening, the House Rules Committee met in a seemingly-interminable session.

The Rules panel serves as a gateway to the House floor. Almost every piece of legislation must first get a “rule” from the committee. The rule establishes parameters for how the House will handle a measure on the floor. If you don’t get a rule, you can’t debate the bill.

Members of the Rules Committee peppered the Democratic authors of the bill with questions in the cramped hearing room. Hours of this interrogation exasperated House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA).

“We’re thinking of renaming this committee Guantanamo,” Miller sighed at the five hour mark in the meeting.

“It’s worse than Guantanamo,” blurted Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-CA).

– 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.

– The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.