With a gaggle of House ‘moderates’, led by the meddling Josh Gottheimer, now trying to strong-arm Nancy Pelosi into decoupling the long-linked infrastructure bills, I’m reminded of a night back in 2010. Republicans made Democrats wait some six months to seat Al Franken after he defeated Norm Coleman in Minnesota in 2008. That finally gave them 60 votes in the Senate, enough to pass what we now know as Obamacare. But now it’s January 19th, 2010. Long-serving Senator Ted Kennedy died the previous August and now there’s a special election to fill his seat. Shockingly, the race is called for Republican Scott Brown. Out of the blue, Republicans have won back their ability to filibuster Obamacare just as its near the negotiation finish line.
At this harrowing moment Rep. Barney Frank (D) – who, remember, represented a district in Massachusetts – put out a statement that essentially said, welp the people have spoken, I guess we can’t do health care reform. Reacting in the moment I wrote that I was “genuinely surprised, really shocked to see this statement [Frank] put out tonight that is just an embodiment of fecklessness, resignation, defeatism and just plan folly.”
Let’s be clear. We’re not talking about some Meet the Press ‘moderate’ here. We’re talking Barney F’ing Frank! And yet, the wind was just knocked out of him. Within a day, he’d be reversing course, as he discussed in this interview with Brian Beutler.
But again … Barney F’ing Frank!
What was shifting the tide? The force holding the line was Nancy Pelosi. I am reminded of this scene from The Godfather when Vito Corleone has a talk with Johnny Fontane …
And Frank wasn’t the only one, though he was perhaps fastest and most abject in his election night self-womping. The President himself was reportedly wavering, listening to the counsel of Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod to accept a trimmed down bill focused on lower income Americans. Pelosi told the White House to shut Emanuel up and get him to stop pushing her members on a new mini-bill. In a meeting in the Oval Office with the President, according to Molly Ball, Pelosi told the President “Mr. President, I know there are some on your staff who want to take the namby-pamby approach,” she said. “That’s unacceptable.”
Obama would go with Pelosi’s approach.
The process would play out over the next couple months and it would be grueling. Significantly it would essentially require House Democrats passing the Senate version of the bill, despite having earlier called it unacceptable. Brown’s victory and the Democrats’ loss of a filibuster proof majority in the Senate had come amidst a tug-of-war between House and Senate over different versions of the ACA. Had Martha Coakley defeated Brown the House would have demanded the Senate revise their version and hash out the differences in reconciliation. But now the only way another, more progressive, version of the bill could pass the Senate would be with Republican help which obviously was never going to happen. The Senate version of the bill was the only vehicle left.
At a press conference a week after Brown’s victory, reporters pressed her on how she proposed to salvage the legislation whatever her resistance to the scaled down approach. “As I said to some friends yesterday in the press,” she replied, “we will go through the gate. If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we will parachute in. But we are going to get health care reform passed for the American people…”
And that she did. The President signed the Affordable Care Act on March 23rd, 2010.
Critics of Pelosi would note that the ACA was itself incomplete and imperfect. They would certainly be correct. They’d also note that what I am describing here as a feat of strength and determination involved forcing her more progressive House caucus to accept the Senate’s stingier version of the legislation. They would be correct about that too. But she was insisting on scrapping her own version too.
Reality is never simple or pretty. But at clutch moments no one in DC is more determined and indomitable than Nancy Pelosi. She’ll steamroll the Gottheimers of her caucus with little exertion or concern.