House Democrats Eke Out Adjournment

Posted December 16, 2009 at 6:24pm

Updated: 8:31 p.m.

House Democrats got out of town Wednesday by the skin of their teeth, narrowly passing a debt-limit hike and a jobs package over the resistance of vulnerable Members nervous about soaring deficits as the midterm elections swing into view.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) highlighted the shift in focus by declaring herself “in campaign mode— in a midday sit-down with reporters. For her colleagues facing tough re-election fights, that meant gut-check votes on the two final pieces of House business for the year.

Both measures squeaked by: Thirty-nine Democrats lined up against the two-month debt limit hike, which passed 218-214, and 38 Democrats opposed their leadership on the $150 billion jobs package, which was approved 217-212, with the vote wrapping in time for the Speaker to lead a bipartisan delegation to the international climate change summit in Copenhagen.

Pelosi in her roundtable with reporters indicated that addressing the deficit and boosting jobs will drive the House Democratic agenda next year. And she argued the two goals are not mutually exclusive. “The deficit is addressed by growing the economy as well as being careful about our spending,— she said.

The angst that her rank and file registered on Wednesday suggests they aren’t entirely sold. The short-term debt patch is meant to give Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) room to negotiate a longer-term hike that would also include two top priorities for fiscal hawks: getting pay-as-you-go budgeting into law and setting up a commission to tackle entitlement spending.

But the patch with no sweeteners attached proved tough medicine for Democrats in marginal districts under fire from Republicans for the majority’s deficit spending. And they made Democratic leaders hustle for a bare majority. During the vote, the whip team including Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Chief Deputy Whips Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) were urgently pacing the Speaker’s Lobby, hunting down Members, whip lists in hand, while Hoyer whipped several Members on the House floor, including Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.).

Pelosi and Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) had earlier sandwiched Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.), and Pelosi worked over freshman Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). Moments before, Altmire said he hadn’t decided how he was voting but acknowledged he was getting lobbied.

“That’s why I’m out here talking to you,— he quipped to a reporter.

It was a similar story nearly three hours later on the jobs bill, as some of those voting “yes” did so grudgingly. Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) said he was still undecided as he headed into the vote but quickly voted in favor. “This was put together without much input from the rank and file,” he said. Maffei said he wished leadership had taken more time to vet the package, especially given that the Senate has no chance of passing it before the New Year, and he wishes it had included more ideas espoused by conservatives.

Maffei, a former House press secretary, said he understood the desire to have a positive message going into the holidays, but he said it will be crowded out by bigger stories.

Meanwhile, a host of Democrats were getting the personal whip treatment from Pelosi, with several seen voting “yes” shortly after speaking to her, including Reps. Jim Costa (Calif.), Dennis Cardoza (Calif.) and Jim Cooper (Tenn.). Others rebuffed her appeals, including Connolly, Rep. Michael Arcuri (N.Y.) and New Democrat Vice Chairman Ron Kind (Wis.).

Connolly had been whipped moments beforehand by Pelosi, Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) and Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (Calif.), who was red-faced and pointing at Connolly.

“We need to get serious in our Caucus about the deficit,— Connolly said afterward. “Tonight, obviously a decision was made that what we’re going to do is just jobs. Maybe someday we’ll address the deficit. I don’t think that’s the right sequence.—

Still others were won over by Pelosi’s lieutenants. Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.) pingponged between Appropriations Chairman David Obey (Wis.) and Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (Minn.) for several minutes before eventually relenting. He flashed a thumbs-up to Obey across the aisle, earning a smile and thumbs-up in return.

Leaders started the week with a plan to send the Senate a single package that threw together a $626 billion Defense budget with a major jobs bill and a long-term debt hike. They scrapped the strategy after realizing the Senate wouldn’t accept the measure — which would have forced the House to reconvene after Christmas.

Instead, House Democratic top brass decided to move the Defense spending bill separately, and it cleared the chamber easily Wednesday afternoon, 395-34. Lawmakers then approved by a voice vote a continuing resolution to keep the Pentagon funded into next week, giving the Senate time to approve the spending bill.

The highly compacted time frame for moving all the end-of-year measures was partly to blame for the difficulty, senior aides said. Leaders started Wednesday with giant holes in their whip lists because they only began surveying their Members on the three major bills at the end of the day Tuesday. To complete the picture of where the Caucus stood, the whip team had to stalk the floor Wednesday with clipboards that carried side-by-side-by-side tallies of how Democrats intended to vote on the three measures. And leaders called procedural votes before final passage of both the debt hike and the jobs package to get lawmakers to the floor and continue the vote gathering.

Pelosi pressed the Senate to move quickly on the jobs package next year so President Barack Obama can sign it before he delivers the State of the Union address in January. And though she has previously expressed opposition to establishing a commission broadly empowered to reduce the deficit, she signaled she could accept a version that passes muster in the Senate.

The Speaker likewise signaled confidence that a sweeping health care overhaul can be signed into law before Obama delivers his annual address. She predicted public support for the measure would begin to build once it emerges whole from months of legislative wrangling. “It’s very hard to merchandize health care until we have a bill,— she said. “We are in a define-or-be-defined occupation,— she said, adding that opponents of reform have had the upper hand in the absence of a finished product. She credited her own rank and file with saving the effort by “withstanding the assault— they faced over the August recess in bruising town hall meetings.

On Afghanistan, Pelosi declined to say how she would vote on funding Obama’s 30,000-troop escalation. And she said it would be up to the president to make his case to her Caucus when the time comes next year. “What I’ve told the Members is to give the president room,— she said. “We will provide the briefing and they will have the information.—

Despite a steady trickle of Democratic retirements in recent weeks, Pelosi said Democrats would have a strong majority after the 2010 elections. “In politics, you can never assume anything, and I don’t,— she said, calling the size of Democratic gains over the past two cycles “really challenging to sustain.—

Her message to Members eyeing retirement, she said, is to “be proud of what we’ve done. You have an historic opportunity to accomplish a great deal more when some of this is passed in the Senate … that we fully intend to be in the majority, and they will be in the majority when they return, and that if they need help in their election, that’s my first responsibility — is to make sure they come back.—

Steven T. Dennis and Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.