For Democrats with sufficient memory, the party's failure on a key legislative vote in President Clinton's first term flickered like a distant shadow over last week's nail-biting House showdown on climate-change legislation.
During Clinton's first two years in office, Democrats enjoyed congressional majorities comparable to their numbers today. But those majorities frequently proved unable or unwilling to find enough common ground to advance Clinton's agenda. Congressional Democrats failed to pass his universal health care plan, and they approved a major crime package only after the legislation first suffered a stunning rejection.
The failure of that crime bill on August 11, 1994, was the specter haunting the climate bill, a top priority of both President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Like the climate legislation, which finally passed 219-212, the 1994 crime bill ran into ideological crossfire. Liberals disliked provisions expanding the death penalty; moderates and conservatives resisted its gun control requirements. Neither side accepted responsibility for passing the bill.
As a result, on that steamy August day, the House rejected the procedural rule allowing the crime bill to come to a vote. Ten liberal African-American Democrats and 48 more-conservative Democrats were among those voting no. Even such party leaders as John Lewis of Georgia, Charles Rangel of New York, and then-Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton of Indiana opposed the rule.
Just before the vote, then-Majority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri emotionally told his caucus that if it didn't approve the rule, it didn't deserve to maintain its majority. His words proved prophetic. The crime bill's collapse accelerated a downward spiral for Clinton and congressional Democrats that culminated in the November 1994 landslide that swept the GOP into control of the Senate and the House, the latter for the first time in 40 years. The Democrats' inability to bridge their differences told voters that after so many decades in control their capacity to govern had atrophied.
The climate bill's victory last week was tumultuous and tenuous, but it differed from the crime bill experience in one signal respect: It was a victory. And the victory suggests that Democrats learned something from their 12 years in the minority, when they watched narrower Republican House majorities, however reluctantly, surmount their differences to pass almost all of their party's agenda. "The example of 1994 looms over everything," says White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. "We learned that if we don't hang together, we die separately. It brought unity and pragmatism to the party."
Not quite as many Democrats as Emanuel hopes may have learned that lesson: 211 House Democrats did vote for the climate bill, but 44 others, 29 of them from districts John McCain carried last November, voted no. Some Democratic operatives insist that the party had other votes in reserve, but neither White House nor congressional vote-counters ever identified 218 realistic Democratic supporters. It is unlikely that the Democrats could have ever passed the bill without some Republican votes. (They ultimately received eight.)
Still, it spoke volumes that Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., and Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., two prominent skeptics of the bill from GOP-leaning districts, endorsed the legislation and recruited others after arduously negotiating agreements with the principal sponsors, Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Edward Markey, D-Mass. In the Clinton years, members from tough districts routinely calculated that they would be safer opposing controversial party priorities even if that meant a bill died. This time, just enough of those members concluded that allowing even a politically volatile bill like the climate legislation to fail would be riskier than supporting it. Likewise, while some liberals considered the bill too weak, all but three voted for it. Prodded by a tenacious Pelosi, the bulk of each Democratic faction accepted a responsibility to govern. To House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., that's evidence that Democrats now "adopt as a given that if the party is not effective, the American people are going to hold us liable and put in the other guys."
Health care reform, with all its land mines, will provide the sternest test of how many Democrats share that view. Some swing-district Democrats who voted against the climate bill privately signaled to Obama that their opposition provided them more leeway to back him on health care. If congressional Democrats truly have learned from 1994 that hanging together beats hanging separately, health reform is where they will prove it.
This article appears in the July 11, 2009, edition of National Journal Magazine.