The Morning After, Plenty of Blame to Go Around
We're now less than 24 hours removed from one of the most colossal legislative failures in recent memory, and the first rough draft of history has not been kind to any of the key players.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Monday provides a useful early look at whom the public blames for the financial rescue bill's failure. House Republicans were blamed by 44 percent of respondents, Democrats by 21 percent, and both equally by 17 percent. The survey found that 45 percent supported the bill and 47 percent opposed (past surveys have been all over the map on this question), but there's little doubt about the impact of yesterday's events: 88 percent said they were concerned that the vote "could lead to a more severe economic decline in this country."
A host of smart analyses and behind-the-scenes accounts, along with additional reporting by the Post's team on the Hill, are available to us this morning, and they shed light on how miscalculations and leadership failuers on both sides of the aisle contributed to the result.
With great power comes great responsibility, and the bottom line is that the party in the majority of the House -- much more so than in the Senate -- has the ultimate say over what does and doesn't pass in the chamber.
As Republicans pointed out before they joined negotiations over the rescue bill, Democrats theoretically had the votes to pass the measure on their own. In practice, however, the majority party had too many members opposed to the bill for Democratic leaders to ram it through. But did there really have to be 95 "no" votes? For all their efforts on the bill's behalf, neither Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) nor Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) really put it all on the line Monday.
On a basic level, most congressional votes fall into one of two categories: "party-line" and "conscience." Votes on the rules governing debate, for example, are considered party-line: Oppose them at your own peril, as the leadership will be watching. Votes on issues that divide the Democratic Caucus -- the Iraq war, gun control and abortion, to name a few -- are usually in the "conscience" category, meaning that the leadership understands that members will vote according to their personal beliefs and/or the demands of their districts.
By all accounts, Democratic leaders put Monday's vote in the conscience category; the leadership wanted members to vote for it, but weren't going to punish opponents or hold out special rewards for supporters. It seems that Democratic members felt no particular pressure from the leadership to vote "aye." Now, many lawmakers were resolutely opposed to the bill and would never have switched, but given that this doesn't make the party as a whole look good, would it have been in Pelosi's and Hoyer's interest to apply a little more pressure?
As for the raw numbers, Hoyer told Republicans privately before the vote to expect 125-140 Democrats to vote aye. A Pelosi spokesman said during the vote: "We promised half. We delivered more than half."
On the Republican side, the Post's Paul Kane and Lori Montgomery report, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said he expected about 75 Republicans to vote in favor of the measure, adding that he told Demorats that that was the number he was counting on. The largest number of Repulican yes votes on the board was, at one point, 67, and the final total was 65.
When Republicans fell short of that number, Blunt said he immediately thought of five people who might be willing to switch their votes if Democrats could come up with a similar number. "We could have eventually gotten them, but not in the time available," he said. "I was 40 percent of the way to getting my handful."
Blunt indicated that the fact that Rosh Hashanah began at sundown Monday rushed the vote, because -- even though the vote count was shaky -- House leaders decided that holding vote yesterday would be better than putting it off until Thursday, and letting the markets twist in the wind. "I don't argue with that decision," Blunt said.
Republicans very quickly got their ducks in a row after the gavel came down and went en masse to the microphones to suggest that the Speaker's floor speech was so partisan that it drove some Republicans into the "no" category. Two possibilities here: This simply isn't true, and was just a convenient way for GOP leaders to defect blame for the bill's failure. Or it is true, and several Republicans actually changed their votes on one of the most consequential pieces of legislation of our time because they were irritated by Pelosi. Neither possibility is particularly flattering to the GOP.
Even more so than their counterparts in the Democratic leadership, Blunt and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) didn't twist any arms to change the outcome. They asked, they begged, but they didn't bring the hammer down. With two-thirds of their Conference opposed, doing so might well have imperiled both men's futures in the leadership. As it stands, both Boehner and Blunt may well face challenges anyway after Election Day, as conservatives can point to their support of the rescue bill as evidence that they are too pragmatic and insufficiently committed to the ideological cause.
In the end, Monday's vote may well have been the ultimate prisoner's dilemma: In between the hard-core opponents on the right and the left, there may have been a significant number of lawmakers in the middle who wanted the bill to pass, if only to prevent a stock market implosion, but also wanted to cast their own "no" votes. They wanted other members to carry the political burden.
On the party level, both Republican and Democratic leaders believed, and hoped, that the other side was bluffing about how many votes it would bring to the table. Democrats thought Republicans were understating their vote count, in order to force Democrats to scrounge more votes, and vice versa. Even during the vote itself, each side kept waiting for the other to bring forward more support, like multiple witnesses to a crime all waiting for one of the others to dial 911. But the gavel came down without anyone making that call, and the bill died.
September 30, 2008; 1:10 PM ET
Categories: 2008 Campaign , Agenda , Dem. Leaders , Economy Watch , GOP Leaders , House
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