The Speaker’s Lobby: Year of the Message

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

19 December 2009

It’s a Congressional tradition for the party in power to finish the year with a bang. They want to finish the year with a legislative exclamation point and leave Washington touting a slate of accomplishments.

The “exclamation point” bill for the House of Representatives this year was a $154 billion jobs plan designed to bolster the sagging economy with infrastructure programs. Democrats aimed Wednesday to revel in their achievements with a big, year-end press conference in the Rayburn Room, steps from the House floor. Although there was no official notice to reporters that Democrats would conduct a press conference, aides re-arranged the Rayburn Room for the media by mid-afternoon. The usual furniture was pushed to the side. Someone wheeled in a lectern. Rows of chairs were set up. And a velvet rope lined the room’s perimeter. Kind of like how baseball teams cover the clubhouse in plastic in anticipation of winning game six of the World Series and the players spraying champagne all over the room. But if they lose, the plastic is quietly, and quickly torn away.

By late Wednesday afternoon, there were questions if Democrats would even meet with the media. First, as soon as the House wrapped up, the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and others were prepared to board a plane to whisk them to the climate change conference in Copenhagen.

But there was another problem with the news conference: the jobs bill might not pass.

Smart majorities know how to muscle through razor-thin votes. Which is precisely what happened twice within a handful of hours Wednesday.

The House has toiled in obscurity the past few weeks. The spotlight is focused across the Rotunda on the Senate’s health care debate. But two, little-noticed, skin-of-their-teeth victories for the House Democratic leadership Wednesday could spell an omen of what to expect next year on the House floor.

They don’t take attendance very often in the House. But it’s a good thing the House Democratic brass did that twice Wednesday. Otherwise, it may have been a very long plane ride to Denmark for Pelosi.

The House initiated two, rare “Call of the House” votes Wednesday. All members are asked to come to the floor just to announce their presence. The Democrats triggered the roster calls for two reasons. The first was to make sure they knew who was there and who wasn’t. The second was to buy time to cajole wavering lawmakers into voting yea on two key bills. The first was the onerous task of raising the debt limit nearly $300 billion. The second was to pass the jobs package just before the holiday break.

Democrats tried last week to soften the political blow of hiking the debt ceiling. No one wants to authorize more debt. But they also didn’t want to explain to senior citizens why their Social Security check didn’t arrive in the mail. So House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) crafted a plan to attach the debt ceiling increase to a must-pass bill that funds the military. And in an effort to court fiscally-conscious Democrats, Hoyer threw in a provision to make the House pay for programs as it spends money on them.

Hoyer’s idea backfired. The Senate wouldn’t go for it. And so Democrats had to dial down the size of the debt limit increase. But more importantly, the Democratic leadership was forced to trot out this vote on its own merits. It would now be a stand-alone bill. Lawmakers couldn’t just hook it to the big defense measure and look the other way while they passed the bill in the name of funding the troops.

The debt limit vote was tight. For most of the vote, the issue was losing. The clock in the House chamber ran down to zero with the legislation losing 203 to 208.

But, smart majorities always keep spare votes in their hip pockets. In other words, there are always lawmakers who agree to vote no initially. But the leadership knows they can call the bullpen and ask these lawmakers to switch their votes if they’re needed to douse the fire.

Democrats did just that. And the debt limit vote passed 218 to 214.

But the Democrats were sweating. Change two votes from yea to nay and the vote is 216-216. By rule, tie votes lose in the House.

The Call of the House vote a few minutes beforehand proved fruitful for the Democrats.

“The debt limit is never a routine vote,” groused House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC).

But the debt limit was only a harbinger of things to come.

Voting bells rang again at 5:53 pm Wednesday. The bells signaled what lawmakers hoped was the last series of votes for the year. The first vote was another Call of the House, followed by final passage on the jobs package. Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn planned to tie a pretty, red bow around their package of 2009 legislative achievements: a much-criticized stimulus bill, a controversial climate measure and health care reform. And the bow was the jobs bill. Just before Christmas.

“We hope the families of America will know during this holiday season we are serious about addressing their issues,” Clyburn said earlier in the week.

A Call of the House vote is only scheduled for 15 minutes. But most 15-minute votes take 20 or 25. This vote took 52 minutes.

An observer watching with an untrained eye may have presumed that the extended vote had something to do with a malfunction on the “scoreboard” that lists the names of lawmakers and how they voted. All of the lights next to names starting with “L” were dark, running between Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) through Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM). It may be Christmastime. But the “no l” problem wasn’t what contributed to the lengthy vote.

The leadership dragged out the vote to make sure it knew where everyone stood on the jobs bill. And it needed to buy time to convince just enough reluctant lawmakers to vote with the majority. Like an elementary schoolteacher organizing a field trip, Pelosi clasped a paper in her hand and prowled the House chamber during the attendance vote.

The jobs bill vote came next. In most House voting series, the first roll call is scheduled for 15 minutes. Succeeding votes are only allotted five minutes. But Democrats still had some coaxing to do. So they made the second vote in the series a 15-minute vote rather than a five-minute exercise.

The Democratic leadership took its battle stations. Pelosi roamed the field. Jim Clyburn and a team of aides huddled at a table. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer played emissary to moderate, “Blue Dog” Democrats toward the rear of the room.

And much like the vote a few hours earlier on the debt ceiling, this bill was failing too. At one point, the clock read zero and the bill was failing 208-212.

Nervous Democratic leadership aides feverishly checked slips of paper in front of them and crosschecked their work against the vote tally board behind the dais. The clock sat on zero. Then a few Democrats switched their votes to pass the jobs bill 217-212. A switch of three votes would have torpedoed this legislation.

“This one surprised me a little bit,” conceded Jim Clyburn minutes after the vote.

Senior House sources indicated that the Democrats were 20-plus votes short at one point. Clyburn was skeptical about forging ahead with a vote. But Pelosi signaled her whip to rally the troops.

“I looked at her with doubt on my face and in my eyes. And she gave me that steely look that said, ‘Let’s call the vote,’” Clyburn said. “She’s something else. The best I know.”

Clyburn said it was tough to nail down lawmakers because “cross-currents” on the legislation. Some lawmakers opposed the size of the bill. Some objected to giving money to the states. Others resisted handing out $75 billion of unused funds designated for last fall’s Wall Street rescue package and would have preferred that money go toward debt reduction.

One senior Democratic aide suggested that if the House had defeated the infrastructure-laden jobs package, a headline writer would have christened the bill “a bridge too far.”

But the plan was a bridge too far for 38 House Democrats who voted no. Most Democratic noes were moderate, fiscally-conscious Blue Dogs. Others were freshmen from swing districts who face challenging re-election struggles next year.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) is the president of the freshman class. In 2008, Connolly won what had long-been a Republican district in suburban Washington, DC. Even so, the district has some distinct Democratic trends. Connolly captured 55 percent of the vote.

But as a freshman who represents a district that flipped from red to blue, Connolly doesn’t face the same challenges facing other Democratic freshmen who won districts that had long-been in GOP hands. Those include members like Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-MD), who won with seven-tenths of one percent. Or Rep. Walt Minnick (D-ID), who won by a little over one percent of the vote. Or even Rep. Glenn Nye (D-VA) who won by about five points. Nonetheless, Connolly, Kratovil, Minnick and Nye are all Democrats who bucked their party and voted against the jobs plan.

Connolly fretted about “fiscal discipline” and his desire to use some of the financial rescue package to burn off the deficit. But Connolly also suggested that the entire jobs package was holiday window dressing for the Democratic leadership. He called the bill “a Potemkin Village” because it “would never see the light of day in the Senate.”

Potemkin Village or not, Democrats passed their two bills. And shortly after the final vote, a team of junior aides and interns carried a battery of flags from the Speaker’s Office to the Rayburn Room to be a used as a backdrop. The surest signal that Democrats would call a press conference.

During the session with reporters, MSNBC’s Luke Russert asked Pelosi why Congressional approval numbers were so low, despite the laundry list of accomplishments she ticked off during the news conference.

“This is the year we’ve been doing the work,” Pelosi said of 2009. “Then comes the year of the message.”

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) seized on the speaker’s statement Thursday morning. He accusing Pelosi of shifting into “campaign mode.” Boehner also mentioned “the number of arms the speaker had to break” to pass the debt limit increase and the jobs package.

Moreover, Boehner bemoaned the list of bills Pelosi heralded the night before.

“I hope she does a great job of marketing all of the garbage they passed this year,” said Boehner.

The jury is out on how voters will receive the House’s legislative achievements this year. The House took tough votes on health care, the climate package, the debt limit and the jobs bill. All were squeakers. But the gymnastics Pelosi and Co. had to execute on the final two bills of the year could portend ominous things for 2010. Many House Democrats from swing districts are cashing in their chips. To them, Pelosi is right. 2010 is the year of the message. Messaging to their voters that they oppose big spending and deficits. Messaging a wariness about health care and climate change legislation. And for some Democrats, voting no just to put some real estate between them and the Speaker of the House who doesn’t play well in their rural midwestern or southern districts.

Wednesday’s close votes could mean that House Democrats expended much of their political capital. The moderates and freshmen fighting for their seats are off the bandwagon. And with their no votes, those members could be starting the year of the message a few weeks early.

–         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.

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