Steve Israel: Only in the rarest of instances has party discipline failed to prevail on tough votes in Congress
When legislation does not have a clear majority of votes, it's ultimately unwise to assume it will fail
Editor’s Note: Former Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, is chairman of the Global Institute at Long Island University and a CNN contributor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Bipartisanship is hard enough to come by these days, but we are now likely only hours away from the big vote and the American Health Care Act doesn’t seem to have either party squarely behind it. Moderate Republicans believe the bill goes too far, while far-right Republicans believe it doesn’t go far enough.
At the moment, there is no guarantee President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan have locked in the 216 votes needed for passage, and speculation is swirling that they may need to pull the bill.
But we’ve been here before.
When and if the bill comes to the floor on Thursday, we will witness two things:
First, votes of this nature are like tight basketball games: Things get the most interesting in the final two minutes. That’s when members of Congress who held their votes suddenly produce them and when the Republican whip redeems votes he really needs and releases those he doesn’t.
Second and related, you will observe Washington’s First Law of Gravity in action: that inexorable force called “party discipline.” Only in the rarest of instances has party discipline failed to prevail.
Wavering House Republicans may remember one instance when their leaders brought a deeply controversial bill to the floor of the House without the requisite votes to pass. The year was 2003 and the bill was Medicare Part D, which expanded Medicare to provide coverage for prescription drugs and which produced the largest overhaul in the history of the program.
For almost half a year, the bill appeared to lack a House majority. Every tweak intended to secure votes on the right lost votes on the left, and vice versa. This legislative “overcook” prompted Republican leaders to force a vote without knowing the outcome.
The bill ultimately passed in the House under circumstances that could only be described as bizarre and dramatic – on both sides of the aisle. As the bill came to a vote at 3 a.m., it was losing by several votes. Inexplicably, Democratic Rep. David Wu refused to vote and sat silently for hours. While a Floor vote is supposed to last 15 minutes, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay held the vote open for hours as they worked to whip their votes.
At almost 6 a.m., the Republican leadership persuaded enough of their members to vote yes, reaching a passing threshold of 218. Once the bill was assured passage, Wu suddenly voted yes, shortly followed by several other conservative Democrats who could now claim bipartisanship in their swing districts while avoiding blame with party leadership.
The bill passed by a final margin of 220-215 and with that, a major piece of legislation that affected the health of millions of seniors was passed. Party discipline carried the day (and night).
But there are also rare instances in which party discipline has been taken for granted. When members are forced to choose between their voters and their party, it can cause chaos on the Hill and beyond.
In 2008, in the darkest moments of the financial crisis, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson urged lawmakers to pass the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, which established the Troubled Assets Recovery Program, or TARP.
The $700 billion rescue plan was a compromise to bail out banks, developed to keep the financial crisis from spreading across the entire economy. Many anxious Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, were unable to reconcile how we could lend the largest banks in the nation hundreds of billions of dollars, while average Americans were forced out of their homes and laid off. While the bill was wildly unpopular, it was one of few options that could hold us back from total economic collapse.
The choice was clear, but the path to passage was not.
In the first round, neither party could round up the necessary votes. The bill failed by a margin of 205-228.
The markets reacted. Strongly. As the bill went down, so did the Dow Jones Industrial Average, suffering its largest single-day point drop.
In the resulting panic, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke warned that the sky would collapse if the banks weren’t rescued. Just days later, the Senate passed a revised version of the bill with a 74-25 vote. An angry House member accused the Senate of “legislating by blunt force.”
The bill went back before the House, where the urgent need was now plainly obvious. The revised bill passed by a margin of 263-171. Thirty-three Democrats and 24 Republicans who previously voted against the bill changed their positions. Economic collapse was averted, priorities changed and party discipline prevailed.
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When legislation does not have a clear majority of votes, it’s ultimately unwise to assume it will fail. Party leadership, and especially a President who seems to thrive on doling out threats, have ways to influence vacillating members of their party to ensure a path to passage.
If Ryan decides to force a vote on Thursday, watch for those uncommitted House Republicans to suddenly find excuses to vote for a bill they may have had principled opposition to mere days ago. Because while some members might oppose a bill on principle, in Congress, more often than not, principle comes second to party.