When legislative leaders count votes before a bill comes to the floor they call it a “whip check.” It’s an old English phrase referring to those who kept the dogs in line during a foxhunt.
With all the barking about health care these days, Speaker Pelosi will need some pretty stout lashes to hold Democrats in the pack. But she and President Obama also possess more tools than you think to flog wavering lawmakers.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Last week New York Times columnist Frank Rich called the health care bill “an up or down vote on the Obama presidency.” And as a result, the arm-twisting leading up to the vote will require the mother of all whip checks. Jay Cost at Real Clear Politics updates the count daily.
Both parties in Congress elect their respective “whips.” In the House, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina holds the position for the Democrats and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia for the GOP. The position has been formally part of the congressional leadership since around the end of the nineteenth century. But because health care is the big enchilada, this one lands on Pelosi’s plate. “She’s the real Democratic whip on this one,” a House Republican leadership aide told me.
The fate of the legislation lies in the accuracy and persuasiveness of the Democratic vote counters. Yet the process is largely unknown to the world outside of congressional insiders.
The health care bill includes another strange procedural twist. Democratic leaders in Congress decided to first bring up the legislation the Senate passed in December for a vote in the House. If it passes, the bill could go directly to the president for his signature. Democrats are promising wavering House members they will make changes to the bill in a subsequent piece of legislation that will be considered as part of the budget reconciliation process (which requires a simple majority to pass in the Senate). But it’s unclear when, or even if, this will happen. As one veteran member of Congress used to say, “Fixing a bill in the Senate is the political equivalent of promising ‘I’ll respect you in the morning.’”
Typically when the “whipping” starts on a major bill congressional insiders say, “The candy store is open.” For wavering Democrats, that means requesting changes in the legislation in exchange for their support – make this modification, add this or that and I’ll support it. Bargaining like this goes on routinely behind the scenes. It’s all part of making the great legislative hot dog.
The Democratic whip organization – under the direction of Pelosi – includes dozens of Members who fan out across the House floor gathering information and seeking support. They possess a lot of persuasive tools.
For example, there are political inducements. The president and congressional leaders, working with the Democratic National Committee, can assist with fundraising and other types of electoral support for lawmakers willing to help pass the legislation. The Democrats can also rely on a broad array of liberal interests groups ready to rally political support for lawmakers who “do the right thing” through blogs and netroots.
Internal congressional perks are also on the table. Democratic leaders can offer plum committee assignments to those who get on the bandwagon and punish those who don’t. Full committee chairs like Ike Skelton (D-MO) and Colin Peterson (D-MN) will come under particular pressure to switch their votes from “no” to “yes” if needed. Leaders can also offer spending earmarks or other types of special consideration for legislation because the majority controls the agenda.
The White House has its own “candy store” it can bestow on lawmakers’ districts or by making other policy changes through the power of the executive branch. These agreements are hard to trace and often never get reported, but they surely happen as part of the bargaining process.
And while the cajoling and head banging will remain largely out of sight, it’s happening right now. Make no mistake, President Obama and congressional Democrats are staking their political futures on the House vote. As one GOP leadership aide told me, the White House and Speaker Pelosi have been effective in the past at winning these close ones. “But none of that will be remembered if they can’t get this done.”
Congressional vote counting is an arcane science. But when it comes to health care, winning is now the only acceptable answer for the Democrats.