The Speaker’s Lobby: The Road Ahead

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

11 January 2010

The House of Representatives returns to Washington this week to launch the second session of the 111th Congress. Senators come back next week. Election years often offer tepid fare from Congress. But this isn’t any election year. And the scene on Capitol Hill could prove compelling in 2010.

The biggest issue facing lawmakers is resolving differences between the House and Senate versions of the health care reform bill. Republicans were lockstep in their opposition to the bill. But now the GOP is hounding Democrats about holding the final negotiations in public. Republicans are suggesting that Democrats are carving back-room deals and drafting the legislation in secret. Anything to cast public doubts on what is already a controversial measure.

It’s unlikely Democrats will fling open the doors to these sessions. But it doesn’t matter. Republicans want to portray Democrats in the worst possible light. In preparation for the midterm elections, the GOP is developing a narrative about the Democrats. And crafting the penultimate version of the health care bill behind closed doors synchs up with how the GOP wants the public to perceive Democrats who now run Congress.

Of course for Democrats, the biggest challenge is actually blending the House and Senate health bills into a final, unified product that both bodies can approve yet again.

It ain’t easy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) traded lots of horses to coax just enough Democrats to pass the health care bill. The stables of Pelosi and Reid are now empty. Pelosi faced an insurrection from the most-liberal members of her caucus. They wanted a more comprehensive health care bill and held their nose to vote for the package in the first place. Any effort to water down the legislation with the Senate’s more moderate version won’t sit well with them. And Reid must be careful not to offend moderate Democrats if the legislation tilts too far in favor of House liberals in an effort to appease them.

The next big ticket item on the legislative front is the energy-climate bill, commonly referred to as “cap and trade” (because the bill caps emissions and allows firms to trade for credits to omit additional emissions). The House approved the bill last June with the assistance of Republicans. But the bill hasn’t seen the light of day in the Senate. And it probably won’t. Again, moderate Democratic senators feel they’ve already taken one for the team on health care. And with many Democrats still battle-scarred from the health care battle, there’s little appetite to tackle such an overwhelming issue in the Senate so soon.

That leaves moderate House Democrats smarting. Especially Reps. Zack Space (D-OH) and freshmen John Boccieri (D-OH), Tom Perriello (D-VA) and Frank Kratovil (D-MD) who voted for a bill that may never become law. Yet they have to defend their decision in the next campaign. Expect Republicans to have a field day in campaigns against vulnerable House Democrats who voted for the climate package.

In July, 2008, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) faced a firestorm over a host of alleged ethical lapses. The allegations ranged from Rangel’s failure to pay taxes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic to usage of Congressional stationary to help solicit funds for a school of public service at City College of New York. So Rangel took the unprecedented step of referring himself to the Ethics Committee, telling me at the time in an exclusive interview that he was “as clean as driven snow.”

Since Rangel’s self-referral, the Ethics panel has expanded its probe of the Ways and Means Chairman on several occasions. In December, 2008, Pelosi put out a statement saying she expected the Ethics Committee to complete its probe of Rangel by early January, 2009.

Rarely did a Thursday or a Friday pass in the House the past year where reporters didn’t wait with baited-breath in anticipation of the Ethics Committee issuing its decision on Rangel. They could either exonerate him or sanction him. But either way, no ruling came.

In 2008, Republicans made several attempts on the floor to force Democrats to punish Rangel or strip him of his Ways and Means gavel. This was mostly for show. But again, it was part of the GOP narrative that the majority Democrats are “corrupt” by allowing Rangel to lead such a powerful committee in the shadow of scandal.

It’s hard to imagine that the Ethics Committee won’t conclude its inquiry of Rangel sometime in 2010. And probably sooner rather than later. If the bipartisan Ethics Committee clears Rangel, expect Republicans to howl. If they slap him on the wrist, expect the GOP to pressure Pelosi to remove him from his chairmanship. And if the panel lowers the boom and Rangel goes away, Republicans will revel in schadenfreude.

Republicans would rejoice in torpedoing Rangel. And frankly, keeping him around actually bolsters the GOP cause by providing them a foil. But taking out the Harlem Democrat is nothing compared to Republican efforts to level Harry Reid.

The Senate Majority Leader faced a firestorm over the weekend after it came to light that he called President Obama “light skinned” and added that the president speaks with “no Negro dialect” unless he chooses to.

Reid already faced a tough re-election campaign. But after this gaffe, Republicans seized on Reid like a murder of crows picking through carrion. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) quickly demanded that Reid step aside.

But Reid isn’t dead yet.

The Nevada Democrat moved swiftly to shore up support from African American leaders like the president, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-CA). Republicans accused Democrats of having a double-standard. In 2002, Democrats ripped former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) after he made racially-tinged remarks at the 100th birthday party for the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC), who was once a segregationist. Republicans eventually booted Lott from his leadership post.

For now, Reid appears safe in leadership. But there are questions about whether Reid’s remark could impede his efforts to shepherd the final health care measure through the Senate. And it’s telling that the CBC’s Barbara Lee said that there are too many issues “to distract us from the work that must be done on behalf of the American people.”

Certainly this episode adds to the Republican arsenal in their effort to unseat Reid this fall.

Reid’s re-election prospects aren’t the only race vexing Democrats. Even the most-partisan Democrats concede it’s likely Democrats will lose seats in both the House and Senate this fall. The decisions by Reps. Bart Gordon (D-TN), John Tanner (D-TN) and Brian Baird (D-WA) to quit, coupled with the retirement announcements of Sens. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND), put those seats in play. Plus, moderate and conservative freshman Democrats from swing districts could face uphill climbs.

Expect the election and retirement announcements to create two, new phenomena. First, the retirements of lawmakers watching how they vote on key issues could actually prove to be liberating. Their retirements could unharness them to vote in favor of controversial bills that they wouldn’t have been for had they run for re-election. That could help with health care, the cap and trade bill or another big economic package.

But the downside for Democrats is that all lawmakers buckle down in an election year. And those members who represent tough districts might decide to take a pass on the Pelosi-Reid train in 2010, lest the GOP Velcro them to the Democratic leadership team.

But not all of the challenges rest on the Democratic side of the aisle.

Last August buoyed Republicans as health care reform opponents stormed town meetings to lambaste Democrats. Republicans watched with glee as many of those same voices descended on Washington to protest the health care bill in the fall.

The health care reform bill emerged as a boon to the tea party movement. But caveat emptor. Many of those conservatives don’t think much of the current GOP leadership crop in Washington. Let alone the rank-and-file Republicans who are holdovers from running up big debts during the presidency of George W. Bush. Many in the tea party crowd are poised to form stiff primary challenges against sitting Republican members. And even conduct a “litmus tests” of Republicans to determine if they are conservative enough.

If you have any question about the power of the conservative base, look no further than last November’s special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District.

Republicans tapped Dede Scozzafava as their nominee in a race to succeed former Rep. John McHugh (R-NY). McHugh left to become Army Secretary. As a member of the New York State Assembly, Scozzafava voted for same-sex marriage, backed federal money for abortion and was pro-choice. The Conservative Party of New York ran Doug Hoffman. As the election inched closer, it was apparent that more voters on the right preferred Hoffman over Scozzafava. Scozzafava withdrew from the race. And Rep. Bill Owens (D-NY) defeated Hoffman.

The episode has lead to the surname “Scozzafava” morphing into a verb. To be “Scozzafavaed” is to ferret out members of the Republican party who may not be conservative enough. It’s important to watch if any Republican lawmakers get  “Scozzafavaed” in the next year. And tensions between moderates and conservatives on the GOP side of the aisle could threaten to split the party and present an unexpected advantage to Democrats.

There are two, final miscellaneous factors to watch for in 2010. Both involve national security.

The House Homeland Security Committee set January 20 as the deadline for White House party crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi to explain how they finagled their way into a November State Dinner. The couple refused to testify at a December hearing and the committee issued a subpoena. If they don’t testify, expect the panel to move to hold the Salahis in contempt of Congress.

If the duo ever does visit Capitol Hill, a circus atmosphere will emerge that will make Barnum and Bailey look like hucksters.

But the other national security concern is more serious. The incident aboard an international flight bound from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day and the assassination of seven CIA officers in Afghanistan by a double-agent just before the new year are a stark reminder that the U.S. is at war. It’s been more than eight years since 9-11. But the threat still exists. And any major terrorist attack against the U.S. will alter the political landscape in incalculable ways.

–         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 corridor that runs behind the dais in the House. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.