Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) muscled a $154 billion jobs bill through the House on Wednesday evening just before Congress departed for a holiday recess. With the vote in serious doubt until seconds before it was gaveled to a close, Pelosi worked the floor furiously, imploring her caucus to stick with her and move the measure through.
The bill passed 217-212, but when the time on the clock expired, it was losing 208-212. A few minutes later, when it hit 214-213 and then 215-213, someone shouted "gavel it!" from the Democratic side. A bill doesn't need the full 218 to pass -- only a simple majority of those voting. The presiding officer took the suggestion and closed the vote.
Not a single Republican approved of the bill.
The slim margin is strong evidence that deficit hawks have momentum in the ideological battle between one camp that demands more spending on job creation and another, dominated by the GOP and Blue Dog Democrats, calling for immediate reductions in the deficit. Even the fact that the money was being redirected from Wall Street couldn't sway 38 Democrats, who voted with the Republicans.
A vote moments earlier Wednesday showed much the same thing: 39 Democrats split with their leadership on a measure to raise the debt ceiling. Lifting the debt limit is a politically un-fun vote for any member of Congress -- and one that has a habit of popping up on TV ads during campaign season -- but is necessary to continue the functioning of the government. It barely passed, 218-214.
The jobs bill would use $75 billion in money earmarked for the Wall Street bailout and redirect it to infrastructure investment and aid to states. The bill also extends the duration of the COBRA subsidy from nine months to 15 months, extends the deadline for eligibility from December 31, 2009 to June 30, 2010, extends by six months unemployment benefits that would have expired at the end of the year, and expands a child tax credit to 16 million families.
Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, worked the floor on behalf of the bill, aggressively pressuring newly elected Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who took White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's seat. Obey's legendary temper wasn't enough to sway Quigley, who voted against the bill.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), president of the freshman class, was worked over hard on the House floor by a red-faced George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee and a close Pelosi ally. At one point, Connolly tossed his hand in the air, dismissing a Miller argument. Miller pressed Connolly, arguing that if the House doesn't preserve the unspent bailout funds now, they'll be lost for good, Connolly said later.
Pelosi tried Connolly next, energetically making her case. But he leaned forward, put his right hand on her left arm, and told her he couldn't give her his vote.
He then stepped out in to the Speaker's Lobby just off the House floor and spoke to a few reporters.
"I'm sure she's not happy," he said in an understatement. Freshman defections, as he spoke, were threatening to defeat the bill.
"I wrote the Speaker several weeks ago, along with [thirteen] other freshman, saying that at least half of the TARP money should be reserved for deficit reduction, and then we can address jobs."
Pelosi argued back that all of the bailout money that is repaid by banks goes to reduce the deficit, a point Connollly conceded but wasn't swayed by.
"Tonight, obviously a decision was made that what we're going to do is address jobs. Maybe some day we'll address the deficit. And I don't think that's the right sequence," he said, saying that both are important (a point of agreement on all sides).
HuffPost asked if Democratic freshmen are more concerned about the deficit than the jobless situation. Connolly said that the way people voted would answer the question.
Eight of the fourteen freshman who joined the Connolly letter rejected the jobs bill, along with a sizable number of other new members and Blue Dogs.
The sight of Democrats standing in opposition to spending on job creation with unemployment over 10 percent struck an angry Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, as reason to ask where the party stands. "We may have to take a reevaluation," Rangel said, "of Democrats."
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), who voted for the jobs bill, summed up the mood. "People are worried," he said.
If anybody has a right to be worried, it's Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who will take the lead in fending off a wave of angry voters, many intent on tossing his members out of office. "Clearly, taking the TARP money that would have gone to Wall Street and spending it on infrastructure for Main Street I think is an important move, but obviously we need to get right back to work when we get back here focusing on long-term debt deficit and debt reduction. That will be a priority," he told HuffPost.
The key word Van Hollen's analysis is "long-term." House leaders are pushing for more spending now, along with efforts to structure the budget so that future deficits are reduced. The GOP and vulnerable Democrats, meanwhile, want to cut spending yesterday. "You can't accomplish the fiscal stability goal if the economy doesn't turn around," Van Hollen said.
Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) echoed Van Hollen's argument. He noted that for every one-point reduction in the unemployment rate, the federal deficit is reduced by more than $200 billion due to increased tax revenue. "If we want to close the deficit, we've got to grow the economy and put people to work. And if we don't do that, nothing else we do is going to work," he said.
Connolly, the freshman leader, said that passing the bill would give fodder to political opponents -- even as it is uncertain the Senate will move on it. "Why do we want to pass a bill that seems to lend credence to critics who say, well, maybe the stimulus really isn't succeeding?" he argued.
Connolly's opposition to the spending, however, is particularly striking, because many of his Northern Virginia constituents are employed by or through the federal government itself.
"I have to represent my district. My district has five percent unemployment. My district is right here in the shadow of the nation's capital and it's filled with federal employees and people who work for federal contractors and lots of other people. And within reason they are absolutely sympathetic to the need for jobs for people in other districts who aren't so fortunate. But, remember, they're the ones being asked to foot the bill," he said -- though his constituents are also being paid from the proceeds of that bill.
"And they want to know that if we're going to be doing that, that it's balanced with prudent fiscal stewardship and with some attention to the red ink we inherited. And given the fact that that's not in tonight's bill and I asked for it two or three weeks ago, I cannot bring myself to vote for this bill. Reluctantly," he said.
Peering back into the chamber, Connolly noticed Pelosi and several aides watching him. "They're looking at me. I've gotta go."