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How do whips whip?


Most folks know that Harry Reid leads the Democrats in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi leads the Democrats in the House. For Republicans, it's Mitch McConnell in the Senate and John Boehner in the House. But beyond that, people get a lot hazier on who's in the leadership. Dick Durbin's there, but what does he do again? And can most people name James Clyburn as assistant majority leader in the House? How about Jon Kyl and Eric Cantor, who play that role for the Republicans?

The assistant majority leader is better known as the "whip," which is one of the more awesome titles in American government. And what does the whip do? Chris Beam offers the fullest job description I've seen:

They count votes. The principle task of a party whip, formally known as "assistant party leader," is to keep track of the number of votes for and against a piece of legislation. They're also responsible, along with the party's leader, for "whipping up" support for a particular position. Not every vote gets whipped. If the party leadership knows that a bill is going to pass easily, they won't go to the trouble of counting every last vote. But when the vote is close—say the Senate leadership has 45 guaranteed "yes" votes and 10 "maybes"—whipping is necessary to get a more accurate head count.

There are three stages of whipping. The most basic one is a simple head count. That's when the whip's staffers calls those of every other party member and asks how they're going to vote. The information is then entered into a spreadsheet or onto a paper list of members called a voting sheet.

If the vote is close, the whip moves to the second stage, in which members of the "whip team"—there are nine deputy whips in the House and 11 in the Senate—approach the fence-sitters and hear out their concerns. If a concern can be easily addressed, it gets fixed. If not, the deputy whip (or a committee chairman, or the party leader herself) can offer to help an ambivalent lawmaker on another bill in exchange for his or her vote on the bill at hand.

The third and final whip usually occurs the day before a vote, when whip team members approach their designated members—in the Senate, for example, each team member is assigned two or three senators they know well—and report the final tally.

Whipping can be a delicate business. Whip team members want to get an honest sense of how their colleagues will vote, but they don't want to be ham-handed about it. That means approaching senators in an informal way—either on the Senate floor or in their offices—and gauging their support level. Whipping a "no" vote is especially difficult, since senators don't like to admit that they're not going to vote with the leadership. But honesty is expected. If a senator says he's going to vote a particular way and then doesn't, his colleagues tend to remember. Timing matters, too. Whip a vote too early, and members may change their mind before the actual vote. (That leaves time for their constituents to get riled up.) Whip too late, and there may not be time to change their mind.

It's going to be a busy few weeks for these guys.

Photo credit: Melina Mara/TWP.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 5, 2010; 10:25 AM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Next: A good day for labor unions


In the spirit of reconciliation, I think "whips" should be changed to "carrots"

Posted by: bdballard | March 5, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Whips or no whips, Dame Nancy doesn't have the votes. It's that simple. Remember her famous quote, "You get the votes. Then you take the vote." She ain't gottem. And time is not her friend. Dems continue to peel off by the day. This will be a defeat of epic proportions for Barry and a total squandering of his first year in office. Pride goes before the fall.

Posted by: superman32 | March 5, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

I've long since thought the leadership in the Senate should be switched between Reid and Durbin. Everyone talks about what a behind-the-scenes player Reid is, and I believe it (in general, I don't think he gets enough credit for what he does BECAUSE he's a behind-the-scenes guy). Durbin is much more in your face. I think he'd be a better majority leader, with Reid whipping.

Of course it's also conveniently self-serving in my case, since Durbin is more progressive. ;)

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | March 5, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I think everyone is greatly overcounting the number of progressive House members who will vote against the bill on this final go-round. This is where Pelosi's margin will come from--people like Barbara Lee who represent districts with many people who need health care reform. In this respect the Senate bill is better than the House bill, which had Stupak's language. The women in this group especially aren't going to let health care go down at the hands of Stupak and his pro-pre-born gang. Health care will pass the House with more than enough votes, and this is where they will come from.

Posted by: Mimikatz | March 5, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Didn't the name "Whip" come from the British Parliament, where the Whip actually had a stick that he would wack members with to get them in line?

Posted by: MosBen | March 5, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

The votes will be gotten the old fashioned way -- bribery, and most importantly of all, threats, blackmail, exposure of scandals or even things that might look like a scandal. Loads of people have such things in their backgrounds, or things that can be spun to look bad.

Posted by: truck1 | March 5, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

I'm thinking that for the D's to have an effective caucus, they're going to need an actual, literal whip

Posted by: etdean1 | March 5, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Cantor must have the easiest job in the history of the U.S. Congress.

All he has to do with his spreadsheet is to update the "No" votes on any given measure. Different issue, no problem, same answer -- uniformly across the entire party caucus.

Posted by: JPRS | March 5, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: noted_dpm | March 5, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

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