The House is in the final rush toward passage of a national health care bill, and there's one thing Speaker Nancy Pelosi absolutely, positively does not want her Democratic lawmakers to do: Go home.
"You meet constituents and get an earful from them -- that's the last thing she wants," says a key House Republican aide. "If you were a Democrat, and you went home last weekend and were asked about the health care bill, you could say, 'I'm still looking at it.' Well, now you've had it for a week, the vote is any day now. What are you going to say?" Better just to stay in Washington and avoid potentially uncomfortable scenes.
The problem is, those constituents, perhaps 10,000 of them, came to Capitol Hill Thursday to raise the issue in person. They came to the "House Call" rally organized by Republican leaders, but they desperately wanted to get a message to the 52 moderate Blue Dog Democrats who hold the fate of PelosiCare in their hands.
HEY BLUE DOGS! said one hand-lettered sign. WHO WANTS TO BE TOAST?
"What can the Republicans do at this point?" asks Clare Roberts of Chambersburg, Pa., the woman holding the sign. "They don't have the votes. It's up to the Blue Dogs to stand against this right now."
One Democrat who may be having visions of toast these days is Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello, who last year defeated a Republican incumbent by less than one-fifth of one percentage point. In Tuesday's gubernatorial election, the GOP came roaring back in Perriello's district, with Republican Bob McDonnell smashing Democrat Creigh Deeds by a 61 to 39 percent margin. The newly energized GOP will definitely be gunning for Perriello next year.
You'd think that fact -- along with the drubbing Perriello took at some town halls last August -- might be a message to the lawmaker, who has never committed one way or the other on PelosiCare. But by Thursday, Perriello appeared ready to stick with his speaker, even if it kills him. "I've moved a lot closer to yes," he told MSNBC. "I really think that's the key. Being the party of no, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, just saying 'no' is not enough. The question is, are you putting solutions on the table?"
Perriello is not alone. There are dozens of Democrats representing districts where a majority of voters have serious misgivings about national health care. And yet many will end up voting for their party's bill. Why?
"The thing that Pelosi has going for her right now is that a lot of her members are more afraid of her than they are of their constituents," says the GOP insider. He notes that Pelosi has plenty of weapons to make life miserable for members who cross her -- "any benefits the member can have for the remainder of this Congress, the kind of support they'll have going into next year's election, and if they lose, what kind of post-Congress opportunities they will have." All could be endangered by a vote against the health care bill.
Meanwhile, as the Blue Dogs sweated, the protesters rallied outside their offices. Among them was Susie Kimsey, from Phoenix, who is concerned about the expansion of government and decided a couple of days ago that she just had to fly to Washington for the rally. (Her husband spent all afternoon on the Internet looking for an affordable plane fare.) "I hope Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic leadership come out and look at this crowd and see these people," Kimsey said. "I'm a homemaker. I raised my kids. I was a baseball mom. I went to dance recitals. I'm not one who would pull up signs and stomp and yell. But I have to do this for my grandkids."
No doubt a number of Democrats looked outside and saw the crowd. But they're in a tough place: fearful of their constituents' anger, on one side, and of their speaker's anger on the other.
It's a bad choice. But in the end, Pelosi can't fire them. The voters can. "As the old saying goes, cross thin ice at your own peril," said 77-year-old Herbert Rosser, who came to the rally from Raleigh, N.C. "The American people are going to make them pay a price for it."
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on www.ExaminerPolitics.com ExaminerPolitics.com.