Pelosi, Obama Pass Test

Posted June 17, 2009 at 6:02pm

As the vote ended on the war supplemental bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stood in the well of the House, staring up at the tote board with a smile on her face. The tally read 226-202 — and Pelosi, and President Barack Obama, had met their toughest test to date.

After weeks of working to round up support for the $105.9 billion package, Democrats headed into the Tuesday night vote without a clear sense of where they stood.

Leaders’ whip counts had vacillated dramatically on a measure that cut a jagged divide through the House Democratic Caucus. The package picked up broad bipartisan support on its first trip through the House, but the addition of $108 billion in loans to the International Monetary Fund helped rally GOP opposition to the negotiated version. Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) made clear Tuesday that leaders weren’t counting on any help from the minority on the second go-round.

Instead, Democrats needed to convert about a third of the 51 liberals in their ranks who opposed the supplemental the first time. The bill’s boosters were up against a grass-roots blog campaign to pressure those Democrats to oppose new war funding — an effort quietly buttressed by a few Democratic lawmakers who tried to sew up opposition in the Caucus.

To make the sale, the White House deployed its heaviest artillery: Obama joined Cabinet members — Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — in working the phones. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, until late last year a Democratic Member from Chicago and Caucus chairman, made a slew of calls, as well.

“Rahm talked to me,— said Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures. “I think IMF is important, more money for the flu vaccine is important, as well as the president indicating it was the last supplemental. He’s already committed to withdrawing troops from Iraq.—

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said she was persuaded by Obama’s speech in Egypt earlier this month.

“The president’s brave speech in Cairo convinced me he deserves my support — and at least the benefit of the doubt when it comes to extracting us from Iraq and Afghanistan,— she said.

GOP efforts to kill the supplemental clearly weren’t on the merits, Schakowsky said.

“The primary goal of Republicans was to embarrass and weaken the president, and I wasn’t about to be a party to that,— she said.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), another convert, said he also fielded a call from Emanuel. But it was Pelosi’s rousing speech to the Caucus on the day of the vote that moved him from no to yes.

Pelosi, according to those in attendance, made the case that Republicans were only trying to embarrass Obama. And while cutting a new check for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might rile constituents in more liberal areas, Pelosi pointed to her own support for the bill despite her San Francisco district as evidence that the national imperative of handing the president a win eclipsed the need to satisfy voters back home. The vote, she said, was about cleaning up after the Bush administration to allow Obama to move on to the rest his sweeping domestic agenda.

Even after her midday speech, Pelosi left some wiggle room on whether leaders would put the package on the floor that afternoon. Asked whether it would come up for a vote, she replied, “That is my understanding.— Likewise, earlier that day, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) stopped short of projecting victory. “I think we have the votes,— he told reporters. “Confident might overstate it.—

As the vote drew near, Democratic leaders were nervous enough about the margin that they summoned Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.), who was out sick with food poisoning, back to the Capitol to cast a vote in support.

And Pelosi was working the room as well, acknowledging Rep. Doris Matsui (Calif.) after she cast a late vote for the bill and joined the ranks of 20 Democrats who flipped to support it. Rep. Brad Sherman (Calif.), who opposed the IMF funding, was a lone defector from among the 200 Democrats who supported the supplemental on its first pass.

House Democratic aides said that while administration officials provided critical help, it was their own leadership under the Dome that gave the measure the final push that it needed — and White House aides on hand during the vote showed their appreciation.

As the vote ended and Democratic lawmakers spilled off of the floor to return to their offices, Jon Samuels, a member of Obama’s legislative affairs team, stood by a door off the south side of the House chamber. “Thank you, Mr. Chairman,— he told Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) as the official steward of the spending package passed by.

“You bet,— Obey said.