By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; A02
Just days before the climactic vote on health-care reform, the "tea party" movement issued an unexpected surrender.
It came Tuesday at the "Code Red" rally across the street from the Capitol, just a few minutes after a man dressed in a Captain America costume served as the color guard for the singing of the national anthem. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), a favorite of the tea partiers, leapt onto a bench to address the few hundred activists. He pressed what he thought was the "on" button on the electronic bullhorn.
But the lawmaker evidently hit the wrong button, because it caused a recorded voice to boom: "You sunk my battleship! You sunk my battleship! You sunk my battleship!"
This was not the message conservatives were hoping to send -- but the balky megaphone may well have been speaking the truth. Those who thought they could defeat health-care reform now find themselves being outmaneuvered in their war games by a devious new foe: the Deem Team.
That team began to suit up Monday, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she favors a "deem and pass" legislative maneuver that would allow the House to pass the Senate's health-care bill without actually having to vote on it. It was a diabolical plan -- and for Democrats, who spent the past year or so denouncing Republicans for just such parliamentary gimmicks, it was hypocritical. But it just might work.
On Tuesday morning, another member of the Deem Team, House Rules Committee Chairman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), sent out a 2,000-word memo defending the use of "self-executing rules" under which something can be "deemed" into law. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who has also signed on with the Deem Team, held a long news conference defending the process of deeming. He deemed that the Republicans deemed twice as frequently as the Democrats have deigned to deem.
"There's a whole lot of deemin' goin' on," Gohmert told the tea party crowd after organizers finally silenced the bullhorn and gave him a new one. "There's a lot of demons around here, apparently."
But what to do about it?
"Kill the bill!" rolls off the tongue, but it's hard to make a good chant out of parliamentary tactics -- certainly nothing as good as the sign Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) spotted in the crowd: "Grandma Isn't Shovel Ready." Gohmert tried to lead the tea partiers in a chant of "Self-executing!" but it died out quickly. Another speaker, conservative activist Colin Hanna, attempted to start a chant of "Deem it dead!" -- but that didn't work much better.
In a news conference late Tuesday, Pelosi was confident of victory for the Deem Team. "We will do what is necessary to pass a health-care bill," she vowed, pronouncing her side "in pretty good shape." Asked about her whip count, she flashed a smile and said slyly: "I never stop whipping."
With the emergence of the Deem Team, the health-care debate, now in its 15th month, has shed any last vestige of substance. It has become an exercise in Robert's Rules of Order, as Republicans use every parliamentary means at their disposal to defeat the bill and Democrats retaliate by using every parliamentary method to pass it. Both sides are piling up hypocrisies like unpaid medical bills.
Republicans are demanding an up-or-down vote in the House on the full bill -- never mind that they spent the better part of a year opposing an up-or-down vote on that very measure in the Senate. Democrats have come up with the inelegantly named Slaughter Solution of "deeming" and "self-executing rules" -- never mind that they once argued (unsuccessfully) that such a technique was unconstitutional.
Surely, if Americans were paying attention to the legislative process, they would deem that the whole Congress should be subject to a self-executing rule. But Democrats, after watching Republicans get away with parliamentary shenanigans for months, are calculating that Americans don't care about the process. "The family that I mentioned the other day whose premiums went up 60 percent, they're not focused on process, they're focused on results," Hoyer told reporters Tuesday.
Republicans responded to the Democrats' deeming in the usual way: with more parliamentary gimmicks of their own. The office of Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) sent a memo to GOP lawmakers urging them to "participate in a conference-wide one minute speech event on the House floor." Exploiting a procedure that allows any member of the House to speak for one minute, the Republicans ate up nearly four hours with such speeches on Tuesday.
"Democrat leadership may deem the bill passed without members of Congress even voting on it -- that's un-American," wailed Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.).
"I'd never allow my kids to deem their rooms clean, so it's disgraceful that the majority plans to deem their $2.5 trillion government takeover of health care as passed without a vote," lamented Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.).
Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) tried a pun on Slaughter's name -- "slaughtering the House rules" -- then added: "I deem back the remainder of my time."
Slaughtering the rules? Well, maybe. But you think that will stop Democrats from finally getting health-care reform passed? You must be deeming.