By Alan K. Ota, CQ Staff
Speaker Nancy Pelosi mastered the art of conserving her political capital in the run-up to the last election by avoiding difficult votes and protecting vulnerable members.
The House's passage Friday of a bill intended to address climate change (HR 2454) revealed a different side: a Speaker prodding Democrats to take potentially risky votes on the party's top priorities.
While Republicans warned of the price that vulnerable Democrats will pay in the next election, Pelosi got up-close and personal with individual members, pleading with them to vote for the bill, which is intended to address global warming and make energy production cleaner.
It's an approach that many Democrats -- and some potential GOP allies -- are likely see again in next month when Pelosi presses for a replay: winning passage of President Obama's remake of the nation's health care system.
“It was personal with her,” said Joseph E. Crowley, D-N.Y., a chief deputy whip who is a leaders of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of moderates.
But Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia said Pelosi's hard push for the energy bill would complicate efforts to persuade members to take tough votes on health care legislation.
“It will continually wear on their members, having to take difficult votes. If the Speaker will then ask them to vote for a government takeover of health care -- after asking them to vote on a national energy tax -- it will be harder,” Cantor said.
Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry A. Waxman , D-Calif., said he believed Pelosi's upcoming effort on health care might be smoother than what she faced with the energy bill.
“People feel that things are possible, that we can get them done,” he said.
The energy measure passed 219-212, with eight Republicans crossing over to vote for it and 44 Democrats voting against it. The vote proved anguishing for many freshman Democrats and representatives from industrial and rural areas, but the House's strengthened majority allowed Pelosi to give a pass to many Democrats who face tough campaigns in 2010.
After the vote, she said she was not daunted by dissent in her caucus.
“I respect the decision that everyone of them made,” she said.
Pelosi took her case into the cloakroom where she held forth for more than two hours, meeting one-on-one with several dozen lawmakers while the bill was debated on the floor. Participants said Pelosi made her case by emphasizing policy points and the importance of the bill to protect the environment and future generations.
Political observers said the bill's passage gives Pelosi some breathing room to recover from a battering by the GOP over her recent criticism of the accuracy of CIA briefings on detainee interrogations.
“It was really important for her to get a win to restore her stature, given her less-than-stellar performance in questions about the CIA.,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.
Pelosi noted the pressures coming from beyond Washington, including the deluge of calls by opponents of the bill that tied up telephone lines in the Capitol in the hours before the vote.
“For some of the members, it was a very difficult vote because the entrenched agents of the status quo were out there in full force jamming the lines. . . . And they withstood that,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi's victory was far from seamless, coming only after Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, took to the floor and staged what was the closest the House has to a filibuster.
Boehner took advantage of House rules allowing him to make extended remarks. He went through the bill, page by page, and offered his criticism for more than an hour.
Waxman asked the chair to keep Boehner to the Republicans' allotted time, and argued that he was trying to delay the roll call to sway the vote. But the presiding officer, Ellen O. Tauscher , D-Calif., said it was the custom of the House to allow leaders to speak fully.
“Never,” bill cosponsor Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts said, when asked if he had ever seen anything like Boehner's filibuster in his 33 years in the House.
“This is unprecedented,” Markey said.
“It could be he hopes people start to go home and increase their chance of winning,” he added.
After Boehner's critique of the bill, Pelosi scrapped her closing comments and spoke for just about a minute.
Pelosi urged members to remember what the legislation is about: “Jobs, jobs, jobs.” She then urged members to vote for creating more of them.
Still, Baker said the winning vote demonstrated Pelosi's clout within her caucus. “She was clearly able to prevail on marginal members to take a tough vote . . .This could provide momentum for health care,” Baker said. “It convinces people she has the vast bulk of her caucus behind her.”
‘A Conscience Vote'
In the days leading up to the vote, Pelosi was at the top of her game, Democrats said.
“This proves that when she really cares about something and makes it a priority that her caucus is going to be listening,” said Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, a Pelosi ally who is vice chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
In addition to talking about the issue, Wasserman Schultz said Pelosi stressed the importance of the issue to Democrats. “It was a conscience vote. If we didn't come here to do this, then what did come here to do?” Wasserman Schultz said.
Anna G. Eshoo , D-Calif., one of Pelosi's longtime allies, said the Speaker had made clear to her leadership team and Democrats that she was determined to move the legislation.
“This is her flagship issue. She made clear the work won't stop until the last vote is cast,” Eshoo said.
Pelosi kept a running estimate of the vote tally and worked individually with wavering members, discussing details of the bill and the impact of the legislation on the country and on their states.
“She understands what motivates members. . . . She talked about what it might mean for one corner of Minnesota, another corner of New Hampshire, and a part of Florida. She talked specifically about what it would mean for your district,” Eshoo said.
Pelosi had room to maneuver because trade groups opposed to the bill such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many Republicans groups decided against launching a heavy advertising campaign attacking the bill and it supporters before Friday's vote.
Republicans hardly took the vote lightly, as Boehner's last-minute protest demonstrated. Boehner and Cantor both assailed the measure as a “jobs killer,” and Republicans used a chart to illustrate the complexities of what they called “Speaker Nancy Pelosi 's National Energy Tax.”
They warned they would hold rank-and-file Democrats accountable for their votes in 2010.