The Speaker’s Lobby: Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

14 January 2009

There’s no such thing as an eight hour meeting in Washington.

And lengthy Washington meetings almost never involve the principals.

Those endurance tests are the province of staffers who pull all-nighters. And these forums certainly don’t involve the President of the United States, the Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority Leader and a host of other key Congressional figures and top administration officials.

But Wednesday’s marathon bargaining session at the White House lasted eight hours. And it included all of the main players listed above, trying to forge a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the health care reform bill.

The House and Senate approved their own health measures late last year. Now comes the REALLY hard part: weaving those packages together into a single bill that can pass the House and Senate. Again. While simultaneously maintaining the volatile, political alchemy essential to passing the legislation through both chambers.

President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) published a joint statement Wednesday night saying they were “encouraged and energized” by the talks. But this is a sticky process. And it’s a long way from complete.

“We’ve got a problem on both sides of the Capitol,” lamented House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY). “A serious problem.”

“If the present Senate language continues to be what dominates the discussion, it’s going to be a difficult problem getting 218 votes in the House,” conceded Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ).

“We keep hearing them squeal like pigs in the Senate that they had a tough time getting to 60,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) of the Senate mustering the magical figure of 60 votes to pass the measure. “Well, it wasn’t exactly a picnic for us to get to 218.”

But this consternation doesn’t faze House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-CT).

“How many times over the year have we heard that this bill is dead?” Larson inquired. “We’re on the precipice of something historic.”

Democrats are threading the needle on this legislation. They secured the barest of margins to pass this bill in both the House and Senate during the first round. And they need to do it all over again. But to hear Larson tell it, this is nothing.

It reminds me of Dr. Seuss’s book “Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?”

In the book, a boy meets an old sage, who’s perched atop a cactus in the desert. The boy is down. But the man proceeds to tell the boy that he’s really quite lucky. For his situation could be much worse. The man then regales the boy with tales of creatures in bizarre situations who have struggles far more pronounced than his.

You think the Bridge to Nowhere was a boondoggle? The old man warns the boy he could be a day laborer, trying to erect the Bunglebung Bridge. It’s an insanely rickety bridge without an end in sight. Or the boy could be condemned to play a “Poogle-Horn” as he negotiates a flight of stairs. While riding a unicycle. Or, Seuss writes that the worst scenario is being “poor Herbie Hart.” Who apparently has taken his “Thromdibulator” apart. And can’t get it back together.

I’ve never heard of a Thromdibulator. But Seuss’s gizmo is some gigantic apparatus with a million pieces. Washers. Cables. Couplers. Gears. Levers. You name it. And Herbie Hart has spread the parts to his Thromdimbulator out all over his room. With no chance of re-assembling the contraption.

To Larson, Democrats aren’t stuck with a Thromdibulator. They’re only facing health care reform. Yes, it’s a challenge. But finalizing a vexing issue like health care is a can of corn compared to putting a Thromdibulator back together. And Larsen wouldn’t dare trade the plight of Congressional Democrats for the special corner of purgatory reserved for Herbie Hart.

“The notion is that we are close to passing this,” said Larson.

But the path out of this cul-de-sac is anyone’s guess. And House and Senate Democrats are hunkering down to protect their versions of the health bill.

“The Senate’s Kabuki dance has lost its magic on us in the House,” said Anthony Weiner. “It’s no longer that thrilling to watch.”

“I’ve said many times that we send over (to the Senate) a silk purse and we get back a sow’s ear,” groused Raul Grijalva.

The Democrats anxiety isn’t lost on Republicans. They believe the final stage is the most-pivotal time for the health care bill. The GOP knows that Pelosi and Reid must walk a treacherous tightrope to keep health care supporters in line. One misstep and the entire bill could be lost.

“This fight ain’t over,” said House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN).

Meantime, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) wants to take advantage of the perilous corner Democrats are in. Cantor last week released a memo saying that Congressional Democrats “made a series of contradictory commitments and deals, each of which has the possibility of derailing a final bill.”

So Cantor is targeting a slate of 37 House Democrats who voted for the health care bill that he believes can be “turned.” Most of these lawmakers are moderate and conservative Democrats from swing districts. They’re support for the health bill was tepid to begin with. Cantor points out that Republicans only have to prevail upon three of those Democrats to switch their votes. And if the GOP is successful, they may be able to torpedo the legislation.

“The choice for them is are they going to be with the people or be with Pelosi?” Cantor asked.

Cantor’s right. There are certainly several dozen wavering House Democrats who, given the current electoral climate, might be more than willing pull a John Kerry and vote for the health care legislation before they vote against it. But the Democrats are pulling out all the stops. President Obama visits the Capitol Thursday afternoon to shore up support. And President Clinton backstops Mr. Obama with a Friday health care pep rally.

“Our members are there,” promises John Larson.

“I think there’s a sense of history,” adds House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-CA).

There’s no deal yet. But Democrats are confident. And like Dr. Seuss’s character, they like the position they’re in.

As Dr. Seuss wrote: “When you think things are bad, when you feel sour and blue, when you start to get mad, you should do what I do! Just tell yourself, Duckie. You’re really quite lucky!”

There’s no Thromdibulator here. Both Democrats and Republicans think they’re the lucky ones in this fight. And what’s even more intriguing, is that only one of them is right.

–          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 chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.