Just hours from a government shutdown that everyone once insisted would never happen, House Democrats emerged from an emergency caucus meeting Thursday night much the same way they walked in: without a unified strategy.
Democrats are split on the "cromnibus" spending plan agreed upon by Republican House and Democratic Senate negotiators. The White House and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland want the cromnibus to pass. But Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California is against it, and she has significant backing from her caucus. Those who might be inclined to vote "yes" are keeping quiet, dodging reporters or saying they are still undecided.
Shortly after Pelosi's speech, with support for the bill in question, the House went into recess, delaying the vote on the cromnibus that was slated for roughly 2 p.m.
The postponed vote gave Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. the opportunity to call House Democrats and give them the pitch as to why they should vote for the cromnibus.
Sources said that Hoyer was calling members to suggest they take a deal now, rather than wait for one that could be significantly worse later, though the Maryland Democrat's staff pushed back against the characterization that Hoyer was whipping for the trillion-dollar measure.
"We are not whipping the bill, but Mr. Hoyer has spoken to some members to get a sense of where they stand and check the pulse of the caucus," a Hoyer aide told CQ Roll Call.
A source inside the closed-door caucus meeting told CQ Roll Call that Hoyer had informed members he would have voted in favor of the cromnibus.
After the recess, Pelosi penned a "Dear Colleague" letter to Democrats in which she said it was clear Republicans didn't have the votes and, therefore, Democrats had leverage to remove a rider altering derivatives rules in the Dodd-Frank Act and a provision increasing individual contribution limits for political parties.
Despite the phone calls from the White House, as the recess stretched on into the night, House Democrats seemed increasingly more set in opposition.
"If the president is lobbying, we don't like it," said Financial Services ranking member Maxine Waters of California, who is leading the fight against the Dodd-Frank policy rider. "We are telling members, 'Don't be intimidated by anybody.'"
Rep. Steve Israel of New York, freshly elevated by Pelosi into a new messaging post in the leadership ranks, put it plainly to reporters as he made his way into the room: "The president and vice president are free to make their calls, but they don't have a vote on the floor of the House."
The White House was so concerned with the status of the vote it dispatched Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to the Democratic Caucus meeting. But by the time McDonough arrived to try to sell the cromnibus in person, it was clear he would be not be facing the gracious reception normally reserved for administration officials.
Some Democrats, such as Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, said McDonough made a "strong pitch," while others, like Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, said the White House was "tepidly received."
According to members, McDonough centered his argument around the landscape of early next year, when Democrats' negotiating position will be significantly weaker should they opt for a three-month continuing resolution instead of the cromnibus.
As retiring Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia said in January, "Democrats will ask, 'What have we done to ourselves?'"
"This particular experience, as with many others, has validated my decision to leave," Moran said.
Moran told reporters that Republicans needed 80 Democrats to vote for the cromnibus for it to pass. He predicted Democrats could probably get between 50 and 60.
GOP aides insisted earlier Thursday that they had lined up more than 160 GOP votes for the cromnibus, which was about as many as they believed they could get to vote for the bill. Another 60 votes from Democrats would put the House right around the number needed for passage.
But with a shutdown approaching, Republicans and Democrats are both wondering what the House will do, and when they'll do it.
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