From the opening seconds of the final vote on HR 3590, all you had to do was watch the House leaders of both parties to know what the outcome would be. On the Democratic side, Speaker Pelosi, radiant in lilac suit and matching pumps, was handing out hugs and kisses and posing for pics with groups of her House sisters. Across the aisle, meanwhile, Republican whip Eric Cantor looked even edgier and more vibratory than usual as a handful of his members huddled close, all eyes on the giant illuminated list of member votes projected on the wall above the press gallery. (Red light for nay, green for yea.) Some Dems watched the display, especially as the “yeas” inched toward 216. But not Pelosi. Long before the vote was official, she had begun celebrating, leaving the losing team to agonize over the final tally.
Not that defeat came as a surprise to the minority. Even before Democratic fence-sitter Bart Stupak gave a mid-afternoon presser announcing his oh-so-agonized decision to support the bill even without his desired anti-abortion provision, the GOP knew it had been beaten. All day you could sense a kind of daffy resignation in some of the rank-and-file as they milled about the Capitol, waiting for the inevitable drama to play itself out.
For anyone trolling for pre-vote activity, the hottest action was on the grand balcony that runs along the Speakers Lobby on the south end of the Capitol. A members-only retreat, the balcony looked out over the gaggle of Tea Partiers and other anti-reform die-hards come to express their extreme distress over America’s impending plunge into communism (or “socialism” depending on which banners, shirts, and signs you favored). These were not people looking to debate the finer points of cost control or accessibility. These were folks itching to strap Pelosi to the back bumper of the nearest pickup. Angry and profane does not even begin to describe the scene.
In search of a little pick-me-up, Republican members took to wandering out on the balcony and revving up the crowd. Two or three scrawled ‘No’ on sheets of paper and began waving them over the railing, tittering like school boys. Tennessee’s Zach Wamp snatched up a discarded poster board, propped it against a column, and, black marker in hand, began gleefully writing “LET’S MEET ‘EM AT THE STATE LINE” in big block letters. (Homemade signs were all the rage among members. Inside high windows along the east side of the capitol, someone had put up more letters spelling out “VOTE NO” and “SCRAP THE BILL.”) Caught up in the naughtiness of it all, Pennsylvania’s Jim Gerlach rushed over to steady the posterboard while Wamp scribbled.
But it wasn’t until a couple of the old guys goaded Tea Party prom queen Michele Bachmann onto the balcony that the fun really got started. After only a second or two of faux resistance, Bachmann sidled up to the edge, clasped her hands together and shook them above each shoulder like some kind of pink-clad prize fighter. The crowd below went hog wild, and more than one member made a snorting reference to Bachman’s “Evita” moment. Soon, other Republicans began sliding out to stand beside her and bask in the reflected love.
Hours later, as the whole pre-vote back-and-forth really got rolling, Republicans were in no mood to sit still. They trotted out every parliamentary trick in the book to try and slow the process even further. They were quick to snicker, groan, and boo at Democats’ comments, and they’d shout down any member of the majority who went even a second over their allotted speaking time. And whenever one of their own team spoke, the remarks would be met with enthusiastic applause and cheers. Bachman took to shouting “Good job! Good job!” at colleagues, like she was a proud T-ball parent cheering from the sideline.
On some level, it was sweet of Bachmann to try and keep everyone’s spirits up in the face of what the party must realize is a grave injury. The GOP went all out to deliver President Obama a legislative Waterloo, and ultimately came up short. For a party that prides itself on being ruthless and efficient and competent, this is a particularly devastating blow, and we should probably cut members a little slack in dealing with it the best they could. In fact, earlier in the day, as I stood watching Wamp and Gerlach make their cute little sign for the protesters, Illinois’s John Shimkus stretched an arm up over my head to snap a picture of the two men with his cell phone. “I should really get them off the balcony,” he mused, more to himself than to me. We introduced ourselves, and I asked the congressman if he was having a good day. “Not really,” he said with a heavy sigh, eyes still glued to his colleague’s balcony antics. “But what are you gonna do?”
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.