No Vote Came Easy for Pelosi

Posted March 22, 2010 at 6:37pm

House Democratic vote-counters started their calculus about cobbling together a majority for a sweeping health care overhaul with a reasonable assumption: that the four lawmakers who had announced their decisions to retire since voting on the original House version back in November were ripe targets.

Leaders were facing the seemingly impossible task of persuading House Democrats to pass a Senate bill stocked with provisions they viewed as politically toxic. The retirees, freed of worry about their re-elections, should have an easier time coming aboard and giving leadership a much-needed, if narrow, cushion.

But in the late-night 219-212 vote for the bill Sunday, only two of those Members — Reps. Brian Baird (Wash.) and Bart Gordon (Tenn.) — voted in favor, while Reps. Marion Berry (Ark.) and John Tanner (Tenn.) were opposed. And Baird only announced his support the day of the vote.

Nothing came easily to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her lieutenants, backed by the White House, as they muscled health care reform over the line. And the stories of the late-breaking votes illustrate just how tight the margin was for a Democratic majority that had potentially staked its future on the outcome.

Baird made clear to leaders early on that they should neither take his vote for granted nor bother whipping him, since he would be making up his mind based on his own analysis of the final bill text and its budget impact. “Everybody knew in my case — no point in cajoling me. They were likely to get punched in the mouth if they said, ‘You’re not running,'” he said. “You say that to me, you insult me personally, because it implies all I care about is election.”

The Evergreen State Democrat nevertheless got the full treatment from the White House: a personal meeting with President Barack Obama and talks with Vice President Joseph Biden and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, former governor of Washington. On Sunday morning — after staying up until midnight on Saturday reading the final analysis from the Congressional Budget Office — Baird said he called Obama budget chief Peter Orszag and went through it “point by point,” before talking it over some more with Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), a top health care adviser to Pelosi. “I felt at the end, I’d done my due diligence,” Baird said.

[IMGCAP(1)]Tanner and Berry, on the other hand, were nuts that never cracked, despite pressure from the heaviest artillery at the party’s disposal, including personal attention from Obama and former President Bill Clinton. Tanner, exiting the Capitol around midnight on Sunday, called the bill he had just voted against “vastly improved” from the reform proposal he likewise opposed last year. In the end, Tanner, a fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrat, said, “I voted my district. You’re supposed to work for the people that hire you. That’s the Blue Dog mantra.”

The key to the final margin, of course, was the deal brokered with Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), his band of anti-abortion-rights Democrats and the White House on an executive order that would assure no federal funding of abortion. The abortion brinkmanship came to a head Friday night with talk of a compromise that would grant Stupak another vote on his language on the House floor, but supporters of abortion rights threatened to retaliate, and Pelosi put the kibosh on the idea Saturday morning.

Pelosi began aggressively courting Stupak’s group, bringing them into her office Saturday in small groups, hoping to peel them off if Stupak himself refused to cut a deal.

Meanwhile, Stupak said he felt leadership had the votes to pass the bill even without the agreement, but that wasn’t guaranteed.

Freshman Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.) said it was clear that without the executive order, the count “was razor thin.”

Even after the deal, the Democratic whip effort never stopped. Right up until the final vote, members of the leadership team continued to make runs at Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) — a hard “no” — Tanner, Berry and others as Pelosi tried to run up the score a bit.

Those Democrats ended up voting against, but Pelosi also won some last-minute converts. She spent a lengthy session on the floor with Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), who ended up as a surprise “yes” in the end.

Pelosi had personally courted nearly every wavering Democrat over a period of months, intensifying dramatically in the past week, and the stakes could not have been higher with the fate of the party’s top priority, her Speakership and Obama’s presidency all hanging in the balance.

Crucial support came from the administration. Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.), one of the last holdouts, said he agreed to back the bill after he got assurances from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, with an assist from Biden, that the White House would help mitigate any job losses from the student loan bill that got attached to the health care measure in the package of fixes. By the time Clinton called him on Sunday, he said, he had already made up his mind.

Even before the votes were cast, the political implications were starting to play out for certain lawmakers. Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), whose eastern Georgia district is 44 percent African-American, faced intense pressure throughout the week from the Congressional Black Caucus to back the bill. Some aides said the message delivered to Barrow was clear: If he opposed reform, he could expect to see CBC support for a primary challenger.

Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), whose North Florida district is near Barrow’s, said she leveled no threats in the three conversations she had with Barrow to urge his support, on behalf of his black constituents. But she said she would no longer travel to Savannah to campaign for him, as she has in past races. “He was very nice in our conversations,” she said, “but nice isn’t what I’m looking for. Members who represent large numbers of African-Americans should be sensitive to the people they represent. Health care is the new civil rights.”