House Republicans are getting leaned on, hard, to vote for the GOP health care bill. First came the invitations to the White House Bowling Alley. Then the lunch dates. Still hunting for votes over the weekend, President Donald Trump flew members to Mar-a-Lago. But by Tuesday, with a floor vote looming, President Trump was naming names at the GOP caucus meeting. “Mark Meadows?” the president said, looking for the leader of the Freedom Caucus, who has still not said he’ll vote for the bill. “Stand up, Mark. … Mark, I’m going to come after you.”
The White House later said that the president was “just having fun” at the caucus meeting. But when a White House goes into full whip mode, which this White House obviously has, it’s time for the members on the sharp side of the whip to ask themselves whether they’re being asked to storm the castle or walk the plank. In other words, will their vote on health care this week help deliver a successful, necessary legislative victory, or are they being asked to support a bill that may not pass, may not work, or may cost them and their party their seats in two years’ time.
Jill Lawrence, who has covered Washington for years for USA Today and others, has also just written the one book President Trump should probably read before the votes are counted on Thursday. “The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke through Gridlock” looks at four recent times when Congress and the White House were able to make big deals that also yielded important legislative results and a political win for both sides.
“The best way to avoid walking the plank is to have a bipartisan deal,” Lawrence said. “There will still be people who vote against it for reasons or principles of their own. But people who vote for it have a good chance of not paying any penalty and, in fact, getting some praise.”
Among the bills Lawrence highlights as the biggest and best deals, as Trump would say, were the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, which was negotiated by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee at the time. That bill created the sequester funding cuts, which were shared equally on both sides, but also ensured a two-year federal budget and guaranteed the solvency of the U.S. government, no small task at the time.
“There was so much dysfunction leading up to it, so many failed attempts to negotiate, that when somebody reached a deal, even a small deal as budget deals go, there was a lot of acclaim for it simply because they had gotten to yes,” she said.
The other bills — the 2014 farm bill, the 2014 Veterans Affairs reform bill, and a public lands bill in 2014 — all included wins for both sides and trade-offs, too. But when I asked Lawrence to describe some of the whip tactics that the White House had to use to pass the bills, there were none. “These were not deals that needed whipping,” she said.
Compare that to 2009, when then-President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi whipped House Democrats until the last possible hour on the cap-and-trade climate bill. To lock down the last key votes, Democrats filed a managers’ amendment at 3 a.m. on a Friday morning, scheduled a vote later in the day, and pushed it through with just one vote to spare. Roll Call reported that Pelosi had “effectively squashed members,” ramming the bill through over the objections of the moderate Blue Dogs, in order to put the ball in the Senate’s court. The result of the tough vote for Democrats? The climate change bill does not exist and neither do the Blue Dogs. The Senate never took up the bill, but individual Democrats paid the price for it at the polls anyway. “They walked the plank,” a staffer at the time told me.
Another plank walker that Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton likes to talk about was a 1994 House vote on President Bill Clinton’s BTU tax, an unpopular tax hike that Clinton got through the House. It was never taken up in the Senate, but hung around everybody’s necks in the midterms nonetheless. That was the same year Clinton pushed through the crime bill with the assault weapons ban added as an amendment. House Democratic leaders asked Clinton not to push the bill and eventually told Clinton to whip it himself, which he did. Although the bill passed, Democrats lost 53 seats in rural and Southern districts. In his book “My Life,” Clinton said he realized later that he had “pushed the Congress, the country and the administration too hard.” Warnings from his own party had been the early signals he ignored.
In both cases, there was one-party control of Washington and it was early in the new president’s term. Campaign promises were due, the president’s ego was strong, and members of his own party felt like they owed their president a win. The identical conditions exist today.
The reality is that there’s no way to know for sure how a bill will look when the 2018 elections are happening, no way to anticipate every unintended consequence of a major piece of legislation once it’s implemented. The real difference between walking the plank and storming the castle ultimately comes down to why a member votes for it. Is it good for their constituents, good for their party or good for their president? A bill can be many of these things at once, but it has to at least be good for a member’s constituents, and the constituents should agree on that count. If they’re voting yes for any other reason, they’re just walking the plank.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.