In the late evening after passing the health care overhaul last month, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gathered with her leadership team to savor their triumph.
“So what are we going to do now?” Pelosi joked, according to a Democratic aide.
“End hunger,” replied her closest ally, Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), prompting a round of laughter.
The actual answer will likely be far more mundane: Pelosi had previously told reporters she was ready to shift into campaign mode and told her Members that they could largely say goodbye to the tough votes they were forced to endure throughout 2009.
And aside from a potential push for gay rights legislation, that means spending the next seven months focusing mostly on smaller, targeted jobs bills and waiting to see what the Senate can produce on a financial regulatory overhaul, energy reform and hundreds of other measures that have already passed the House.
“Pelosi knows she needs to let some steam out of the pipes,” one top Democratic strategist said. “They will be able to make the floor look busy without doing anything that breaks out for outside-Washington types because it’s broadly significant.”
Pelosi has continued a fundraising blitz to fortify her party’s defenses heading into the midterms.
But the Speaker and her team still have to decide whether to push any more controversial items to the House floor this year.
Pelosi has long since punted the thorniest item on the agenda to the Senate — a comprehensive immigration overhaul — but is under pressure from gay rights advocates to bring anti-discrimination bills to the floor. A bill banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation passed the House in 2007, and Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of three openly gay lawmakers, told reporters the night of the health care vote that he thought the passage of health care could help build momentum for passing it this year.
The measure is awaiting a markup in the Education and Labor Committee and has 199 co-sponsors — and will end up on the floor quickly if a whip count shows it has the votes to pass, said a Democratic leadership aide.
Gay rights groups also are hoping for a House vote to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law banning openly gay soldiers from serving, with Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), an Iraq War veteran, leading the charge.
Allison Herwitt, legislative director of the Human Rights Campaign, said her group believes it has enough support in the House to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and is “very close” to finding similar backing for a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Her group has set a goal of clearing both measures through the chamber in the next two months, hoping to add the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal to the defense authorization bill on the floor.
Democrats representing swing rural districts — with their largely socially conservative constituencies — have privately voiced concerns since late last year that they could be forced to vote on such measures in a challenging election year.
The bills are lose-lose propositions for these Members, since supporting the measures is likely to invite attacks that they are out of touch with their districts and opposing them risks alienating base voters and wealthy donors. Herwitt said she recognizes the climate “makes moving any piece of progressive legislation more challenging, but not impossible.”
“Of course we hear it,” she said. “But we also have a lot of independents who support moving our kind of common-sense agenda. These are not radical ideas.”
House Democratic leaders also have to decide in the next few weeks whether to push hard to pass a budget resolution this year and whether to include with it reconciliation instructions protecting budget-related legislation from a Senate filibuster. The ability to use reconciliation is the chief advantage of passing a budget blueprint, and the reconciliation-fueled health care victory could whet Democrats’ appetite to use it again for any number of issues, from tax cut extensions to another jobs package.
The House also has to pass the Afghanistan War supplemental before moving on to the regular appropriations bills.
House Republicans have backed the war funding, but they are sure to put up a fight on the regular spending bills. Almost all House Republicans have withdrawn their earmark requests this year in an unprecedented self-imposed moratorium on the practice, while Democrats are still seeking thousands of them.
The earmark spending contrast will also be stark in authorizing bills, including on a potential long-term transportation bill.
That bill is a favorite of many in the rank and file as a job creator, but it has yet to get much of a push from the White House, in part because there is no agreement on how to pay for it.