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, Youre 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, Id done my due diligence, Baird said.
Tanner and Berry, on the other hand, were nuts that never cracked, despite pressure from the heaviest artillery at the partys 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. Youre supposed to work for the people that hire you. Thats the Blue Dog mantra.
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