The skills that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel displayed working from their respective ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to get the health care reform package through the House last Saturday night were quite impressive.
Is health care where Democrats should be putting their energy right now? That's debatable. What's not in question is the legislative prowess that the Democratic leaders demonstrated. This health bill could have foundered in so many places, not the least of which involved abortion restrictions, but Pelosi and Emanuel muscled it through.
Letting so many -- but not too many -- Democrats stray is a reflection of the Democratic leadership's impressive discipline.
Beyond the Beltway, few of Pelosi's detractors understand that behind her big smile and stylish looks is a Baltimore-bred pol who is tough as nails and knows which veteran "Blue Dogs" can ultimately be persuaded to vote her way on a given piece of legislation. Everyone pretty much gets that Emanuel is tough as nails, but few realize that he has good relationships with many of the freshman and sophomore House Democrats representing previously Republican districts. As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he helped to get them elected and still knows their districts, needs, and fears. Toss in House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's Scandinavian coolness and ability to smooth ruffled feathers, and the Democratic leadership team is able to reach into every corner of its caucus for hard-to-get votes.
The key to victory was that Pelosi and Emanuel understood that their relatively new House majority is built on a layer of conservative-leaning districts won under perfect conditions in 2006 and 2008. And the two actively discourage members from some of those districts from voting in ways that would be construed as out of tune with their constituents. When the House passed Democrats' cap-and-trade energy legislation in June, for example, 44 Democrats joined 168 Republicans in voting no. Twenty-nine of those Democrats were from districts that President Obama failed to carry in 2008. Likewise, when the House approved Democrats' health care legislation, 39 Democrats, including 32 from districts that Obama lost, joined all but one Republican in voting no.
Each time, the Democratic leaders managed to get the bill passed with just over the minimum votes necessary while giving maximum cover to their potentially vulnerable incumbents. Both Pelosi and Emanuel seem entirely comfortable with the voting records of Democratic Reps. John Adler (NJ-03), Kathy Dahlkemper (PA-03), Suzanne Kosmas (FL-24), and Charlie Wilson (OH-06). Dahlkemper, Wilson, and many other Democrats from energy-producing or manufacturing districts voted last week for union-backed health care reform. But last summer, they voted against cap-and-trade legislation. Adler and Kosmas represent two of the most senior-heavy districts in the country, where a vote to tinker with the health care system, especially Medicare, is asking for trouble; so theirs were no votes.
Twenty-three Democrats voted against the health and energy bills. Most of these lawmakers are conservative true believers or serve districts where backing Obama and Pelosi would be political suicide, or both. A larger number of Democrats, 37, took a pass on just one of these issues, which will allow them to point in future ads to an instance in which they "bucked the leadership." Letting so many -- but not too many -- Democrats stray is a reflection of the Democratic leadership's impressive discipline and its familiarity with recent history.
In 1994, the last time that a House Democratic majority was swept away, Democrats held 258 seats, just as they do today. Ten Democrats from districts carried by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 voted against both the 1993 Clinton budget and the assault weapons ban in the 1994 crime bill. All 10 won re-election. So did 11 of the 19 Democrats from Bush districts who voted for only one of those measures. Conversely, only three of the 10 Bush-district Democrats who voted for both measures survived the Republican wave. House votes matter in campaigns.
But this time around, will seeming to have bucked their leadership on a key vote or two be enough to protect Democrats in districts that GOP presidential nominee John McCain carried in 2008? Or will the environment in these battleground districts turn so hostile, thanks to high unemployment, that individual voting records matter less than party affiliation?
Associate Editor David Wasserman and Cook Political Report staffer Ben Naylor contributed to this report. The author can be reached at email@example.com.
This article appears in the November 14, 2009, edition of National Journal Magazine.