Pelosi achieves biggest political victory of her career with health bill
By Bob Cusack - 03/21/10 10:42 PM ET
Nancy Pelosi showed Sunday why she is one of the most powerful Speakers in history.
In shepherding one of the most controversial bills through the House, Pelosi achieved what some thought what was impossible after Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts two months ago.
Pelosi's political stock took major hits at various points in the 111th Congress. Last year, she attracted widespread criticism for her seemingly contradictory statements on what she knew about U.S. interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists. Her handling of the Eric Massa scandal earlier this month was mocked by Republicans and her replacing of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) as Ways and Means chairman was anything but smooth.
Headlines on those issues had some whispering that Pelosi did not have the pull with her caucus that she used to. Some Democrats in the nation's capital privately predicted Pelosi couldn't pull off this close vote, especially with more than 30 House Democrats facing tougher reelection races than when the House cleared its healthcare bill last November.
Down at least two dozen votes earlier this month, Pelosi worked many members one-on-one. On Friday, she talked to Rep. Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.) about his vote off the House floor. Hours later, Murphy announced he was going to back the bill.
There were many others.
By leaning on her caucus, Pelosi got a number of yes votes that put her within range of 216. Some of the biggest "yes" votes in recent days were Reps. Henry Cuellar (Texas), Brian Baird (Wash), Bill Owens (N.Y.), Ciro Rodriguez (Texas), Chris Carney (Pa.), Allen Boyd (Fla.), John Boccieri (Ohio), Suzanne Kosmas (Fla.) and Betsy Markey (Colo.).
Pelosi did make some wrong turns along the way, including considering using the so-called "deem and pass" strategy of passing the bill. The mulling of "deem and pass" proved to be a massive distraction, quickly becoming the focal point of the media's coverage of the bill.
Several Democrats, including Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), vowed to reject such a procedural ploy.
Like she has many times before, she listened to her caucus. She then pivoted, opting against employing the tactic. Cardoza, who is a member of leadership, voted yes.
While several Democratic leaders boldly claimed they had the votes earlier this week, Pelosi knew she was still a significant amount shy. One of the best vote-counters in Congress, Pelosi was forced, once again, to strike a deal with Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).
It was an eleventh-hour deal that could have cost "yes" votes from abortion-rights Democrats. But Pelosi, a staunch supporter of abortion rights, convinced them that unless Stupak was on board, the bill would die on the House floor. They quickly got in line.
Certainly, Pelosi had a lot of help in passing the healthcare bill, most notably from President Barack Obama, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).
Obama personally urged dozens of Democrats to vote yes, and while some refused to budge, others moved into the "yes" column.
But no one knows the House Democratic Caucus better than Pelosi.
And publicly, she never hinted how far she was down in the votes.
"I have faith in my caucus," Pelosi said earlier this month.
Pelosi has had a lot of experience in winning close votes.
She muscled a climate change bill through the lower chamber last year, 219-212. Months later, after a deal with Stupak, the House healthcare bill passed, 220-215. The Speaker also has finessed tought-to-pass war supplemental bills through the House.
This healthcare bill was the toughest lift. Centrists didn't like it because many of their constituents were telling them it was a bad bill. Liberals didn't like it because the legislation came from the Senate -- a chamber they don't trust and now openly belittle.
Along the way, Pelosi had to make sacrifices. After pushing hard for the public option throughout 2009, Pelosi was forced to abandon it this year. She also had to swallow most of the Senate bill while bending on the abortion provisions.
Republicans scoff at the notion that passing healthcare reform is a win for Pelosi and the Democratic Party, pointing to Brown's win and the looming election when many Democrats are expected to lose.
Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), chairman of the House Republican Conference, told his colleagues on Saturday that victory -- one way or the other -- would be theirs. That triumph would either come during the third Sunday of March or the first Tuesday in November, which is Election Day.
Still, Republicans privately admit they underestimated Pelosi when she took the gavel in January, 2007. Defying their predictions back then, Pelosi charted a cautious chart in her first year as Speaker, wary of endangering her majority.
As GOP poll numbers plummeted further, Pelosi adopted a more aggressive leadership style in 2008.
With Obama in the White House, Pelosi moved left, moving the climate change bill before healthcare reform. That decision irritated politically vulnerable Democrats and some in the Obama administration. The climate bill is considered dead in the Senate.
At the end of 2009 as the political winds shifted to the Republican Party, Pelosi attempted to put her caucus at ease. Saying she was in “campaign mode,” Pelosi vowed she would no longer move controversial bills until the Senate acted first.
Pelosi has long said climate change is her flagship issue, but it is unclear whether that measure will pass while she is Speaker.
It is clear, however, that her legacy as Speaker will be forever tied to healthcare reform.