It happened late Wednesday night, so it didn’t get much coverage: Speaker Nancy Pelosi cast the deciding vote when the House voted, 210–209, to adjourn.
That’s significant because, by custom, the speaker ordinarily doesn’t vote except on issues of special importance. And because Pelosi, who has shown impressive ability to deliver Democratic majorities on one tough roll call after another for four years, was scrambling to prevail on what is ordinarily a routine vote.
It wasn’t routine this time, because the Republicans wanted a roll call on extending all the George W. Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire on January 1 — even on those malign folks who make more than $250,000 a year. There were enough Democrats on record for that move to give them a majority if a vote had been taken, and 39 Democrats joined Republicans and voted against adjournment.
Pelosi had effectively lost control of the House. So she decided to shut it down and let Democrats go home and try to salvage their seats.
She and they will come back to a lame-duck session after the election, which seems likely but not certain to produce a Republican majority in the House that will take office January 3.
Pelosi is not the first House speaker whose career ended with abrupt defeat.
Her four predecessors, all of them talented and dedicated men, could be cited in support of the British parliamentarian Enoch Powell’s maxim that “all political careers end in failure.”
Speaker Jim Wright resigned in 1989 amid an ethics controversy. Speaker Thomas Foley was defeated for reelection in 1994. Speaker Newt Gingrich resigned abruptly after Republican lost seats (but not their majority) in the impeachment-year election of 1998. Speaker Dennis Hastert saw his already dwindling majority dissolve when the Mark Foley scandal story broke on the last day of the session in 2006.
Pelosi’s admirers can argue that she has had a more successful run as speaker than any of them. Although she wasn’t able to defund George W. Bush’s Iraq surge in 2007, she held her Democrats together and led them to gains in 2008.
In 2009, Pelosi’s House passed the $787 billion stimulus package in record time. Then it quickly passed a budget that sharply boosted domestic spending. In June 2009, it passed a cap-and-trade bill to address alleged global warming.
On health care, Pelosi was not daunted by Scott Brown’s victory in the January 2010 Massachusetts Senate race. She pressed Barack Obama and other Democrats to go forward, and she squeezed out a bare majority in the House for the obviously flawed Senate bill in March.
Many observers, including me, thought she wouldn’t be able to get so many Democrats to walk the plank. We seem to have been right about the plank: No Democrats are running ads bragging about Obamacare, and several are running ads bragging about voting against it.
But we were wrong about Pelosi’s skill and determination. And whatever you or the majority of American voters think of Obamacare, Pelosi believes that it was a step forward for America — maybe one worth putting the Democratic majority at risk.
Still, Pelosi’s strategy can be questioned, particularly her decision — congenial to her gentry-liberal base in San Francisco — to advance cap-and-trade before health care or extension of tax cuts on the non-rich.
She went to some trouble to do so, setting up a special committee in 2007 to bypass Energy and Commerce chairman John Dingell on the issue and then acquiescing in (if not encouraging) the 2008 post-election ouster of Dingell by cap-and-trade backer Henry Waxman.
Pelosi has refused to act on immigration (a Hispanic, not gentry liberal, issue) and card check (a union issue) until the Senate does so. But she pushed cap-and-trade forward and pressed members from coal-dependent districts to cast tough votes for it — even though its prospects in the Senate depended on the legislative skills of Barbara Boxer and the willingness of some two dozen Democrats whose states would be hit by high energy costs to support it.
Pushing cap-and-trade in June 2009 meant putting off the health-care vote until later. The scramble to pass health care in early 2010 meant putting off a vote on extending the Bush tax cuts on those under the dreaded $250,000 until summer, until September, when the wilting recovery had siphoned off the needed votes.
So you move to punt — er, adjourn. Enoch Powell understood.
— Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner. © 2010 the Washington Examiner.