Making History, Reluctantly
Friday, May 25, 2007
In public, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had done nothing to suppress her frustration as she assented to funding the Iraq war without a deadline to end it. But behind closed doors Wednesday night, she was all business.
With its members gathered in her office, she told the House's "Progressive Caucus" that she would vote against the war funding bill, but that she also had no choice but to facilitate its passage. Funds were running out for the troops, and she had promised to protect them. The Memorial Day break loomed, and without the money President Bush would have a week to hammer her party for taking a vacation while the Pentagon scrambled to keep its soldiers fed.
Was she agonized over the situation? Sure, said Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.), who attended the meeting. But "we all feel that way," he added. "I feel that way, too. Are we going to just walk away now, or are we going to continue this process, to keep the pressure on?"
Yesterday's vote to fund the war through September was a historical rarity: the passage of a bill opposed by the speaker of the House and a majority of the speaker's party.
Two years ago to the day, then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) violated the "Hastert rule" -- that only bills supported by a majority of the majority can come up -- by bringing up legislation to allow federal funding for stem cell research. The majority of the Republican majority opposed the law. He voted against it, but he knew it would never become law over President Bush's signature.
Over his objections and the opposition of most Republicans, Hastert did allow passage of campaign finance reform in 2002, but only because a petition drive was about to force the bill to the floor. The North American Free Trade Agreement passed in 1993, over the objections of most Democrats, who were then in the majority. But NAFTA did have the support of then-Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), as well as the Democratic president, Bill Clinton.
In contrast, the Iraq funding bill was not only opposed by the majority of House Democrats, it was also ardently opposed by the speaker and even the lawmaker who drafted it, Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.). And it is destined to become law.
"We don't relish bringing a package to the floor that we're not going to vote for," Obey conceded before last night's vote.
Pelosi's agonized decision put her in the company of Foley, who in 1991 brought to the floor the resolution authorizing the Persian Gulf War and then voted against it, and Thomas Brackett Reed, a speaker in the 1890s who voted against the annexation of Hawaii, and then against the Spanish-American War, but allowed both to go forward.
"To have the chairman and the speaker vote against a bill like this, I've never heard of it," Hastert said.
But while protesters outside the Capitol condemned what they saw as a capitulation, Democrats inside were remarkably understanding of their speaker's contortions.
Party leaders jury-rigged the votes yesterday to give all Democrats something to brag about. A parliamentary vote to bring the Iraq funding legislation to the floor included language demanding a showdown vote in September over further funding. A second vote allowed Democrats to vote in favor of funds for Gulf Coast hurricane recovery, agricultural drought relief and children's health insurance. Finally, the House got around to funding the war.
Republicans cried foul over what they saw as an abuse of the legislative system, but Democrats saw brilliance in the legerdemain. And with such contortions came more appreciation for the efforts Pelosi was making to fund the war in a fashion most palatable to angry Democrats.
"It was the responsible thing to do, and she's a responsible speaker," said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), who is personally close to Pelosi. "You can't just walk away."