The Speaker’s Lobby: Looking Out the Window

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

20 January 2009

Several years ago, the National Weather Service here in Washington secured some new, high-tech forecasting equipment. The gear was state-of-the-art. And it would help meteorologists make more accurate weather predictions.

Winter storm clouds brewed a few days later in Washington and pelted the region with several inches of a thick and unexpected snowfall.

The obvious question was what happened with all of that new-fangled equipment out at the weather bureau? One meteorologist conceded that they had missed it. None of the forecast models anticipated such a big snow in Washington. But then the weather man offered this gem.

“We forgot to look out the window,” he said.

That’s what happened last night in the Massachusetts Senate race.

And in case you’re off enjoying an intergalactic vacation on the planet Xantar, Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R-MA) upset Democratic nominee Martha Coakley last night to take the seat of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). Brown’s victory means Democrats no longer hold the magical 60 votes necessary to halt a GOP filibuster of the health care reform bill. And Brown’s colossal stunner could doom the touchstone of President Obama’s legislative agenda.

For nearly a month, Democrats reveled in their success of tugging the health care reform bill through the House and Senate. By the barest of margins. The undertaking was a chore, to be sure. And onerous work lay ahead as lawmakers attempted to synch up the House and Senate measures into a final, unified bill.

Congressional Democrats didn’t know EXACTLY what kind of health care reform bill they would get in the end. But like the guys at the weather office, their eyes were glued to their monitors, watching the legislative computer kick out model after model, each a potential blueprint for the health bill.

But they were so focused on those computer screens that they failed to look out the window. The barometric pressure bottomed-out. Fierce clouds boiled. And an epic political storm churned. And they were shocked when a tempest named Scott Brown tore through the middle of the health care reform debate.

No one saw this coming until a week ago. Just last week, some Congressional Democrats scoffed at reporters if they even dared to ask “what if Brown wins?”

But by Monday, Democrats panicked. And no one could offer a roadmap on how to pass health care if Brown defeated Coakley.

I emailed one senior Democratic aide Tuesday morning for a blueprint on health care if Brown emerged victorious. The staffer wrote back that “discussions on what to do if Brown wins haven’t moved past the ‘oh @#*$!’ stage.”

An exasperated Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) said his Democratic colleagues risked “being not only ignorant but arrogant” if they forged ahead with the health care bill “as if nothing has happened.”

“I now read a headline that we’re going to go back to worshiping at the alter of Olympia Snowe. Yeah, that worked out great,” said Weiner of the moderate Republican senator from Maine, whom the White House courted to be the 60th vote on the health care bill.

Weiner suggested that Democratic leaders pivot from the health bill and focus instead on the economy. Many lawmakers worried that Brown’s victory could be a harbinger of things to come. Especially if Congressional leaders continued to toil on health care. But the Massachusetts Miracle didn’t faze some Democrats.

“If you’re a Member of Congress and that kind of thing spooks you, you shouldn’t be here,” said Rep. Zack Space (D-OH).

“Far too many people in this building are too focused on their jobs,” said Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-OH), a freshman who faces one of the toughest re-election contests in the country this fall. “I am sick and tired of questions about what does this mean for your re-election. I didn’t get in this for my re-election.”

But some Democrats are going to ask what this means for their re-election. And expect reprisals for who’s responsible for letting this happen.

Of course, some will target Martha Coakley. Some will turn to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, charged with electing Democrats to the Senate. Some will blame the health care reform bill. And some will accuse the White House political office. For not looking out the window.

It’s thought that Democrats took this election for granted. Even calling it the “Kennedy seat.” In fact, the Obama Administration could have cleared the Democratic field for their own, hand-selected candidate and guaranteed a win. Certainly the White House didn’t flinch at all last year when it mowed down not one but three potential Democratic primary challengers to Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY). President Obama even personally phoned Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) to sideline him when the Congressman was on the verge of announcing his candidacy. The White House also dissuaded Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) from running.

But none of that happened in Massachusetts. And some Democrats groused privately Tuesday night that Mr. Obama should have cleared the field for Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA) instead of Coakley and guaranteed a win. Coakley defeated Capuano in the primary by 126,000 votes.

In the Massachusetts contest, Democrats also forgot one of the most-enduring axioms gleaned from the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994: never mess with a candidate who drives a pickup truck when you’re trying to pass health care reform.

Scott Brown made a point of trolling the commonwealth in his green, GMC pickup truck. Democrats attempted to pass health care reform in 1994. And that same year, Fred Thompson rambled through the gullies and mountaintops of Tennessee in a red pickup as he campaigned for the Senate against Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN).

During his campaign, Cooper authored a health care reform plan that wasn’t as sweeping as the one proposed by President Clinton. But Thompson took Cooper’s plan and turned it against him, tying the Congressman to the Clintons just because he WANTED to reform health care, too. But didn’t want to go nearly as far as the Clintons wanted to.

And at every stop, Thompson railed against Cooper. Not giving a stump speech. But a “bed” speech. From the bed of his red truck.

“Jim Cooper’s problem is he’s never seen the inside of a pickup truck,” Thompson claimed.

Thompson whipped Cooper by 22 percentage points. And no one dared touch health care reform again until now.

So Democrats are in a fix. No one knows where the health care bill goes from here. And if health care reform tanks, Brown’s win is steeped in great irony. When Ted Kennedy died last August, Democrats rallied around his passing to bolster support for health care reform. And five months later, Kennedy’s successor could prove to be the lawmaker who does it in.

– 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 is a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.