Smart as a Whip

In the House, say Tom DeLay, left, and Tony Coelho, if you don't do your homework, you're gonna blow the big tests.
In the House, say Tom DeLay, left, and Tony Coelho, if you don't do your homework, you're gonna blow the big tests. (Kenneth Lambert - AP)
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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 4, 2008

You've got to work things out in the cloakroom, and when you've got them worked out, you can debate a little before you vote.

-- Lyndon Baines Johnson

The second time, at week's end, they didn't even fight about it much.

When it came time to debate the Great Bailout in the House, the often raucous, roiling people's house, the speeches weren't very fiery, the veins weren't popping out of foreheads, the arms weren't flailing.

There was just the steady swing of the cloakroom doors. Behind the frosted door panes, shadows moved. The doors would flip open for a moment, allowing the tiniest glimpse of someone's sleeve, of deep red leather upholstery, then slam shut again.

Congress passed the billions in bailout bucks yesterday by a comfortable margin. President Bush quickly signed the bill into law. The stock markets plunged anyway.

Order in the House of Representatives had been restored, however, the party bosses and their whips having regained their skill at Old Math -- otherwise known as head-counting.

This basic piece of legislative leadership is what vaporized on Monday, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner urged passage of the first bailout bill and lost, spectacularly, in full, global, real-time, live-blog, Twittering view. During a workweek with the screaming classes a-screaming and the specter of soup lines hovering, they had a remedial lesson in how to avoid humiliation: Get your math right before you take it public.

"If you really are a good vote-counter, you don't let something come up that you can't win, because the next time people are going to say, 'I don't know, maybe he doesn't have the votes,' " said Tony Coelho, whose 1986-89 tenure as Democrat majority whip earned him a rep as a fine vote-counter.

The best ones at legislative arithmetic are the gatherers of secrets, of details, of useful tidbits.

Armed with all that information, they can lean on the reluctant, trade and cajole, sweet-talk and intimidate, until the numbers add up to a winning vote for their side. Their mental dossiers can be weapons of soft persuasion -- favored by the late Sam Rayburn, so good at it with his after-hours "board of education" meetings that a congressional office building was named for him -- or of hard persuasion-- the style of former House majority leader Tom "The Hammer" DeLay and Senate leader Lyndon Johnson, who is nearly as famous for his muscular Capitol Hill dealmaking as for his presidency.

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