The House narrowly passed Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) $174 billion jobs bill Wednesday, only after Pelosi and other party leaders yelled, pleaded and cajoled reluctant Democrats worried over deficit spending.
The vote was 217-212. No Republicans voted for the bill, and 38 Democrats voted against it.
It was the second suspenseful vote of what House members hope was their last workday in 2009. Democratic leaders also had to lobby members from conservative districts to pass a $300 billion increase in the debt limit.
The close votes reflect the growing unease among centrist Democrats that the deficit spending that Congress has undertaken to right the economy is becoming a potent campaign issue.
"We've got to indicate we're serious about the deficit," said Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyHow lawmakers aided the Afghan evacuation Overnight Defense & National Security — Congress begins Afghanistan grilling Connolly rips Wilson over 'you lie' during Blinken hearing MORE (D-Va.), who voted “no” and represents a Republican-leaning district with low unemployment. "We didn't cause the deficit, but we have to address it."
Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who is retiring from Congress, changed his vote to put Democrats over the top. That signals a potent variable in vote counting next year -- retirees who no longer need to respond to traditional political pressures.
Four centrist Democrats, including Baird, have announced they're retiring from Congress without plans to run for another office. They all voted for the bill.
The other three, Reps. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), Dennis Moore (D-Kansas) and John Tanner (D-Tenn.), are all Blue Dog Democrats known for voting against Democratic leadership, especially when it comes to deficit spending.
Political analysts are closely watching for more centrist retirements. Those members will have no fear of losing committee assignments and can't be won over with promises of campaign help or other inducements. Four votes could have tipped most of the close votes in the House major bills this year, such as healthcare and climate change.
But Democrats facing tough re-election fights found themselves trying to determine if voters are angrier about 10 percent unemployment or trillions in deficits.
"My staff is looking at it," said a newly elected Democratic member from a conservative district as the clock ticked down. "If I can't make a good case that a lot of money is coming back to my district, I can't support it. I wish we had more time."
He voted "no."
And Republicans gave them reason to worry, dubbing the jobs bill "Son of Stimulus," implying both that it is a monster, and that it is simply an extension of Obama's stimulus package, which they've deemed a failure.
"Even though a mere quarter of the first round of stimulus funds has been spent, Democrats are eager to reach deep into taxpayer pockets again," said a news release blasted to the hometown papers of vulnerable lawmakers from conservative districts.
Leadership didn't let Connolly go without a fight. House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) argued with him on the floor during the vote in what appeared to be a heated discussion.
"He was obviously very passionate," Connolly deadpanned after the vote.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stalked the floor with a tally sheet in hand, stomping into the row of seats traditionally occupied by centrist Blue Dog Democrats to find Reps. Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa, fellow California Democrats, who she'd won over on healthcare.
Cardoza and Costa hadn't voted, but Pelosi won them over. Cardoza turned and put his card in to vote yes. Pelosi turned and sat down with another Blue Dog, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.).
Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), a freshman Democrat who is among Republicans' top targets, was pushing open the chamber door to leave when House Appropriations Chairman Dave Obey (D-Wis.) tapped him on the shoulder to clarify what may have been another intense conversation.
"I didn't yell at you," Obey said. "I know," replied Perriello, "and I respect that."
Perriello then stepped back on to the House floor to finish talking with the powerful chairman.
But the crucial vote came without any apparent arm-twisting. When the clock ticked down to zero, the bill was losing 208-212. But as leaders worked the floor, the numbers in the "yes" column slowly grew. Then Baird stepped to the desk and picked up a green card and signed it to change his vote from "no" to "yes," given Pelosi the majority she needed.
Baird's last-minute flip was not the only thing that may have been a surprise to Pelosi.
Earlier in the day, Pelosi told reporters that Baird's retirement announcement caught her unaware, as well, and joked that he failed to give her the "72 hours notice" that he'd demanded on the healthcare bill.
This story was updated at 9:15 p.m.