The Speaker’s Lobby: Snowbound

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

12 February 2010

It didn’t take a record, seasonal snowfall of nearly 73 inches at Washington’s Dulles Airport to snarl the health care reform bill. Massive snow drifts, driven by 45 mile per hour wind gusts weren’t required, either. Nor was a barometric pressure reading of 993.6 millibars.

The touchstone of the Democrats’ legislative agenda was buried long before the binary blizzards of 2010 entombed Washington in mounds of snow.

And the irony is that some believe that Snowmageddon 2010 may be exactly what Congressional Democrats needed to thaw the troubled legislation and pass it once and for all.

The snow blitzkrieg liberated rank-and-file lawmakers from Washington. The House was already scheduled to be out of session next week for President’s Day. Many Democrats are already fretting about their re-election prospects. So two weeks back in the district probably doesn’t hurt. Senior Democratic sources are confident that getting apprehensive lawmakers away from the Beltway will calm their health care anxieties.

But while many lawmakers left Washington, most of the leadership team remained. And that allowed the Congressional Democratic brain trust to double down on producing an operative strategy to rally the health care reform effort.

“I don’t think she was unhappy to be stuck in town,” said a senior Democratic aide regarding House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). “It gives her more time to work out the mechanics and think about what’s possible.”

The theory is that the timeout enables Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to focus closely on health care reform, without the daily grind of legislative action. The weather insulated them from the steady steam of foot traffic in and out of their offices and the pestering of reporters each time they strolled down the hall.

It’s unclear if this gambit will ultimately help. But Democrats presume the unexpected respite was a blessing in disguise.

Health care reform has floundered for weeks with Democrats offering no viable strategy to meld the bills approved last year into a single, unified product. Nor have Democrats produced a calculus that would help them to negotiate the new Senate dynamic, altered with the upset election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA).

The House is now slated to return to Washington a day earlier than scheduled on February 22. Democrats plan to dive immediately into a series of piecemeal health reform bills as a potential ramp-up to passing the big measure. It’s believed that such an approach could re-energize Democrats about health care reform and relieve them of their frustrations.

The first item on the table is an effort to strip the health insurance industry of its antitrust exemption. That’s a phenomenon which many Democrats say drives up costs. Then Democrats hope to roll out a more comprehensive blueprint for passing the bill during a big bipartisan health care conclave at the White House on February 25.

Some Democrats whispered that another week with Congress in session and no progress on health care could have tolled a death knell for the health care reform effort.

“The size of the snowstorm took away a lot of that risk,” said a Democratic aide. Plus, the storm consumed all available news oxygen available in Washington. So Democratic messaging experts weren’t concerned that the public was focused on Congress.

But Republicans scoff at the breather. They think anyone who believes the timeout is boon to Democrats is getting snowed.

“I don’t think that anything helps them now” countered a senior Republican aide. “The Democratic agenda was already frozen. And this further solidifies it.”

Republicans are willing to consider Democratic overtures on health care. Especially if they return from the break with some substantive changes that the GOP can agree with. But they remain skeptical.

“I think it depends with what they do with the extra time,” said Mike Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH). “Do they listen to their constituents?”

In fact, Republicans are prepping to stir up their base by encouraging its members to hold town hall meetings next week. Democrats aimed to sell their health care reform plan during public forums last August. However, many of those sessions became turbulent as health care reform opponents flooded gyms and libraries and heckled Democrats as they tried to explain their bill.

Democrats also face another challenge. Scott Brown’s election enables Republicans to filibuster any health care package in the Senate. But House Democrats may not even have the votes any longer to pass the same version of the health care plan that it adopted last fall.

Late on the evening of November 7, Democrats eked out a health care victory, okaying the plan 220-215. In other words, switch three yea votes to nays and the bill fails.

But Democrats have lost or will soon lose three lawmakers who supported the plan. Former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) resigned in January to head the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation. Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) is resigning later this month to run for governor of Hawaii. And Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) died Monday. That takes the vote down to 217-215 right there. The sole Republican to vote for the bill is Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA). But Cao’s support is tenuous. He only voted for the initial bill after it was assured of passing, thus making sure no one could say that a Republican provided Democrats with the margin of victory. And you can expect Republicans to bring out sledgehammers if they have a chance to defeat the next round of legislation and Cao’s vote swings in the balance. A potential Cao switch, coupled with the losses of Wexler, Abercrombie and Murtha, puts the vote at 216-216. And by rule, tie votes lose in the House.

But Democrats have aces in the hole, too. They’re convinced that several Democrats who are now retiring and voted no the first time could be persuaded to vote yes. If that’s the case, look for Democrats to lean on short-timer Reps. John Tanner (D-TN) and Bart Gordon (D-TN) to make up for the losses of Wexler, Abercrombie and Murtha.

Still, many Democrats agonize that a focus on health care means less attention on the economy. One Democratic strategist noted that while the snow interregnum could help solve the health care puzzle, it “hurts us on the jobs side.” And almost all political handicappers believe the economy is the lynchpin to the midterm elections.

During the snowstorms, people used Facebook and Twitter to organize two epic snowball fights at Dupont Circle in downtown Washington, DC. Participants then plastered video and photos from the fray all over the internet.

Several Congressional aides joked that perhaps Democrats and Republicans should stage a snowball fight of their own to settle the health care dispute. Boehner’s flak Mike Steel was asked which party he thought would win such a skirmish.

“Whichever side has the higher ground,” Steel answered wryly.

-         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 dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and lobbyists confer there during votes.