Stark choice split liberals, helped pass Iraq bill

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) floor manager, Jerry Hartz, yesterday cheered Democratic staffers at the weekly whip meeting for their work in helping to pass the Iraq war supplemental spending bill. The festive atmosphere at the normally ho-hum weekly meeting belied just how tough Democrats had it during the last two weeks as they cajoled, threatened and haggled their way to success.

The bill passed Friday because leadership harnessed the debate and bent it to their will. But it took a quiet meeting Thursday morning to secure the support of key stragglers. Pelosi and her cohorts made it clear to rank-and-file Democrats that the choice was between their measure — a $124 billion spending bill that included benchmarks and a withdrawal date — and one favored by President Bush, with no conditions.

The vote was not a multiple-choice question, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told lawmakers.

And as a senior Democratic lawmaker remarked, “It was not a quantum leap. As time went on more and more understood that there were two alternatives … As more people understood that, they were willing to support the proposal.”

Another leading Democrat said that “a single argument” had determined the outcome.

For days, House Democratic leaders tried to sway liberal Democrats with a form of persuasion that sometimes verged on intimidation. Leadership went as far as to discuss including language that would force Bush to adhere to the bill’s benchmarks and timeline in the full defense-spending bill, according to a leadership aide. The idea was scuttled, but by whom — Democratic leaders or Out of Iraq Caucus Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) — is unclear.

As the leaders’ argument attracted more support, liberal Democrats looked to save face. They did not want to be held responsible for killing the bill and could not allow Pelosi to form a coalition without them to pass the bill. They decided against standing in the way of its passage.

The pivotal moment came Thursday morning. At 10:15 a.m., Waters and California Democratic Reps. Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee, co-chairwomen of the Progressive Caucus, gathered in Woolsey’s office. They decided to tamp down their opposition to the bill so that it could pass.

The three then met with their fellow Californian, Pelosi, to share their decision, a leadership aide said.

Waters, as a chief deputy whip and Financial Services subcommittee chairwoman, had the most to lose by opposing the bill: If it did not pass, the Speaker could boot her from the whip organization or take away her subcommittee.

Although Waters had become the most visible opponent of the bill, she told reporters Thursday that she had given 10 lawmakers permission to vote for it. Lee, Waters and Woolsey, along with Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.), issued a statement later that afternoon saying that they would not block the bill.

Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose seemingly relaxed — yet persistent — approach worried lawmakers who felt he was too nice for the job, grew more confident after the caucus meeting Thursday morning, a leadership aide said. He joined Waters, Lee and Woolsey Thursday evening at the Democratic Club, and the votes were in hand.

 Still, when time expired during Friday’s vote, House Democrats found themselves six votes shy of a win. One hundred ninety-four Republicans had voted against the bill, and 13 Democrats and 15 Republicans had not voted. 

Minutes later, the time clock on the House floor continued to read “0:00” and the count stood at 215 to 201 — 11 Democrats and 192 Republicans had cast votes against the bill. Nine Democratic holdouts and nine Republicans had not cast their votes.

Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) cast the 217th vote; Democrats led 217 to 203, and seven lawmakers from both parties had not cast votes. Then, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) cast the 218th vote for the bill.

Pelosi asked whether any member wanted to change his or her vote, then gaveled the vote to a close.

Six liberal Democrats, six conservative Democrats and two moderates opposed the measure.

“Some of those people from the more liberal side are going to regret it in the long run, in the span of history looking back,” the senior lawmaker said.

Two lawmakers were ill and Rep Mel Watt (D-N.C.) missed the vote. A spokesman for Watt said he was in a staff meeting at his Rayburn Building office.

Meanwhile, Democrats are watching whether Pelosi or Clyburn will retaliate against the 14 wayward lawmakers who opposed the bill.

Asked if there would be consequences for them, Pelosi joked that she did not know who they were.
Clyburn shot back, “I do.”