Pelosi Herds Caucus to Narrow Win on Climate

Posted June 26, 2009 at 9:44pm

Correction Appended

The final evidence that the sweeping climate change bill the House passed Friday night belonged wholly to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) came in the closing moments of the vote.

Support for the measure had climbed steadily, then paused at 216, two votes shy of the threshold that seals a majority. Pelosi was standing near the back of the chamber, next to Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), one of a bloc of lawmakers that remained undecided throughout the week despite heavy pressure from their leadership and the White House.

With Pelosi at his side, Cuellar cast a vote for the package as a small burst of other Yes votes pushed the bill over the top and the chamber erupted in cheers.

The measure, which passed 219-212, provided a capstone victory to Pelosi, bringing her a step closer to achieving her signature goal of addressing climate change and proving that she maintains an iron grip on her fractious caucus. In the end, 44 Democrats voted against the bill and eight Republicans voted for it.

“Nancy Pelosi was the whip on this,— Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said after the vote. “And I was pleased to take a backseat to her and watch her and learn from her.—

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a co-author of the bill, said its passage “took a quarterback, it took a vision, and that vision was created on the day that she was elected Speaker.—

But if Pelosi had been aiming for Friday’s outcome for years, she only began an all-out sprint to get there at the start of the week. With a breakthrough deal between Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) nearing completion on Monday, Pelosi decided to gamble that it would come together — and that she could arrange the rest of the pieces needed to assemble a majority by week’s end.

Throughout the week, Pelosi and her deputies kept up a feverish effort trying to convert a stubborn list of undecideds — both Democrats and Republicans. During votes on other measures, the Speaker and her whip team could be seen stalking the aisles of the chamber, buttonholing their targets. Between votes, she worked them over on the phone, and in both small groups and one-on-one in skull sessions in her office.

Heading into Friday, leaders felt they had about 200 votes in the pocket — within striking distance, but still a nerve-rattling distance from the finish line. In a series of morning votes on an Interior appropriations bill, Pelosi pulled uncommitted lawmakers one by one into a room off the House floor to give them a final pitch. Other leaders were following up, and the team got air cover from the Obama administration, with the president, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and climate czar Carol Browner all working the phones. And former Vice President Al Gore — the grand poohbah of the green movement — continued his long-distance whipping effort, calling lawmakers from his home in Nashville.

It was clear for months that this wasn’t just another vote, but one with the potential to make or break careers. And the outside pressure — for and against the bill — was intense, with House phone lines overloaded at one point after Republicans urged people to call their Members.

Throughout the day, leaders projected measured optimism but were careful to note they had yet to secure the winning votes. Facing a razor-thin margin, Democrats called in their reserves, bringing in Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) from his back surgery recovery and Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) back from rehab. And they made sure others weren’t leaving. Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), confirmed by the Senate on Thursday night for a State Department post, delayed resigning her seat, hanging around to preside over debate on the bill and, more importantly, to cast a vote for it.

Democrats faced a new obstacle just minutes before they hoped to start voting: Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) exploited his leadership privilege to launch what amounted to an hourlong filibuster, delivering a rambling critique of a manager’s amendment that was first printed early Friday morning. The gambit, labeled the “Fili-Boehner— by his office, threw a wrench into a day Democrats had carefully choreographed to give themselves enough time to forge a majority while not delaying lawmakers bound for the recess.

In attempt to make up some time, Pelosi scrapped a speech she spent part of the afternoon perfecting in her office, and instead asked lawmakers to consider four words: “Jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs.—

The vote itself remained eventful for Democratic leaders. Moments after it opened, Reps. Ciro Rodriguez and Solomon Ortiz — both Texas Democrats whom leaders believed were supporters — cast No votes then quickly disappeared, prompting a short, frantic and unsuccessful attempt to track them down.

But some of the tension was eased by the decision of a handful of Republicans to buck their leadership and cast early votes for the bill. Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said Democrats were expecting to have to get all of the votes on their own before Republicans would vote for the bill — as they did on the war supplemental. But the Republican defectors broke early, allowing Democrats to keep some vulnerable Members in reserve.

Dripping with irony, Pelosi came to a news conference holding an “Easy— button, after receiving congratulatory calls from President Barack Obama, Gore and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who now faces enormous pressure to follow through on Pelosi’s achievement.

“No matter how long our colleagues wanted to talk against it, they could not hold the future back,— she said, referencing Boehner.

Correction: June 29, 2009

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) returned to the chamber following back surgery, not heart surgery.