For the first time in years, House leaders will put to a vote legislation of enormous ramifications that could go either way. The vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act has been a roller coaster from the get-go and in fact was pulled once before (literally as it was being debated on the floor) because it was going to fail by a wide margin. Almost no one thinks that’ll be the case this time, at least that a defeat would be by a big margin. But if it passes by one or two votes (as many now believe likely), you can bet it won’t be by accident.
The forthcoming ACA repeal vote is eerily reminiscent of 2010 when on the eve of the vote to enact it, House Democrats were s handful of votes shy. In that case, it was Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who had been resisting due to language over funding abortions. At the end of the day – literally, a compromise was worked out and Stupak was able to bring along other pro-life Democrats and the bill passed. Ironically, this time, another Michigander, Fred Upton, has been at the center of negotiations and it was partly because he had secured language to his liking on the issue of pre-existing conditions that he reversed his well-publicized “no” vote to “yes.” With Upton an ostensible centrist (one can examine his voting record and determine whether that is actually the case), the question is whether the fact that he is now on board will sway some fence-sitters. Rumors coming out of the nations capitol indicate that a number of members have said, “If you need me, I’ll be there,” but as CNN Political Director David Chalian said, “I don’t want to be the one.” That is hardly uncommon for cliffhanger votes, particularly on issues of such importance for a new president.
That said, let’s explore some of the squeaker votes in recent decades.
In 1993, Bill Clinton’s economic package came up for a vote in the House. Then as now, it was the first May of a new presidency and one party – in this case the Democrats, controlled everything. But many members of the large freshman class – a number of whom were elected on a change platform, were opposed to the bill as were a fair number of Southern Democrats who felt that the measure did not contain a sufficient amount of spending reductions. A bigger problem was the BTU tax that many members from oil producing states (most notably Billy Tauzin of Louisiana) saw as politically dangerous. The worst nightmare for these members was “walking-the-plank,” and voting for the measure, only to see the Senate gut the provision. That is exactly what happened. Tauzin voted for the package as did a number of freshmen, leading it to pass 219-213 (Tauzin, who incurred a lot of wrath from his constituents, recovered politically but eventually bolted to the Republicans). But, under fierce opposition from Oklahoma’s David Boren, the tax was pulled. The Senate meanwhile had its own struggle and their version passed 50-50 with Vice-President Al Gore casting the deciding vote. Meanwhile, a number of junior members, led by Leslie Byrne of Virginia and Jolene Unsoeld of Washington, were furious that more senior members in very safe districts opposed the measure and began circulating a petition to have them lose their gavel. Speaker Tom Foley dispensed with that.
During the early months of the summer, both chambers worked feverishly to amalgamate the different versions into a compromise package but it did little to assuage spending foes. Once again, the bells for the vote rang and few could accurately predict its fate. In fact, at the 15 minute mark, the package appeared to be going down to a narrow defeat with the president’s own Congressman, Ray Thornton, unexpectedly defecting. At that point, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky took a call from the president. She had opposed the initial version in May and had not given any indication that she was wavering. But she extracted a pledge from Clinton to visit her district and address the issue of entitlements. Were he to agree, she told him, she would back the measure but as she wrote in her autobiography, “I won’t be the 230th vote, I’ll be the deciding vote.” She did just that, the bill passed and Republicans began famously chanting, “Good-bye Marjorie,” on the House floor. The package then went to the Senate and while the drama was not as public, it was equally intense. Bob Kerrey was the hold-out until the afternoon of the vote, he announced that he would indeed support it (Gore again cast the tie-breaker).
The assault weapons ban of 1994 was another monumental vote that got underway with the outcome being truly uncertain. In fact, opponents of the ban seemed to have the edge. As the vote passed the 15 minute mark, the no’s still were on top of the yeas and Republicans howled for leaders to close the role. At that point, a number of members with strong ratings from the NRA voted for the measure which passed 218-216. The sponsors of the bill and strong gun control advocates Chuck Schumer and Mike Synar embraced. It would be Synar’s last hurrah. Later in the year, partly as a result of this issue, Synar lost his primary. Little more than a year later, he was dead of a brain tumor at 45.
As a result of both the Clinton tax package and the assault weapons ban, Democrats of course lost 52 Houses and nine Senate seats, and control of both chambers. Many freshman House memberswho backed those bills lost.
Some high-noon votes will see leaders leaving the vote open – and open and open. That’s what happened in 2003 as the GOP Medicare prescription drug package (known commonly as Medicare Part D) appeared to be losing. Leaders were prepared to concede defeat until House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (who had the nickname, “The Hammer,” convinced a few people to switch to the “yes” column. But it took more than three hours.
Some members get passes, meaning if there are enough votes to pass, they are “free” to oppose the measure. That’s easier done in a House where one party holds a significant edge. For instance, during the Affordable Care vote, some members were told they didn’t need to vote for the package if there were votes to pass it. That’s not to say that some members weren’t voting on principles. Some members would not have supported the bill to begin with. The problem was it was far from clear that the votes were there to pass it. Oddly enough, there were a few fairly centrist House members from very tough districts who could have voted no on ACA but genuinely seemed to want to vote for it, such as Chris Carney of Pennsylvania and Brad Ellsworth of Indiana voted for the bill – but appeared to genuinely want to. They did, and neither returned for the next Congress.
Even nominations are not immune to the politicking and horse-trading. On the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991, two Republican Senators, Jim Jeffords and Bob Packwood came out in opposition. Both were strongly pro-choice so their stance was not terribly surprising. But with Thomas ultimately confirmed just 52-48, would one or both have backed Thomas if some of the 13 Democrats who had backed Thomas were opposing him. Similarly, earlier in the year we saw Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski oppose Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos. But it was well known that they waited until they knew that none of their other Republican colleagues would defect, leaving Vice-President Mike Pence to cast the tie breaking vote that led to DeVos approval.
Will the House Obamacare repeal pass? We’ll see. But two things are certain. One is that the vote will exceed the typical 15 minutes required. Two, is that if it does pass, the margin won’t exceed two votes.