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High Theater: Cap-and-Trade Sneaks By

We had some unusual high theater in Congress on Friday and it was in the House no less, where the usual strict rules tend to eliminate dramatic interludes. But this was anything but usual.  Minority Leader John Boehner, who under the rules for the vote had unlimited time to speak, decided to start reading the 300-page amendment that was added at 3 am into a bill already 1200 pages long. Few if any members had read, let alone located, the new bill on which they were voting.  Politico described the scene which unfolded:

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), running the debate for his party, asked repeatedly Friday afternoon if there was even a copy of the current version of the bill anywhere in the House chamber. Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher – sitting in the speaker’s chair although she’s already been confirmed as Obama’s undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security — repeatedly dodged the question.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), one of the bill’s sponsors, finally rose to say that a single copy of the current version of the bill was available at the speaker’s desk and on the Internet, which members would have to leave the floor to access.
But that wasn’t enough for Boehner, whose move threatened to postpone a vote well into the evening – on a day that has already seen hours of contentious debate.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), one of the bill’s sponsors, interrupted Boehner’s filibuster with a parliamentary inquiry as to whether there was any limit to how long the Ohio Republican could speak – and suggested that he was hoping to talk so long that member might leave before the vote.

“It’s the custom of the House to hear the leader’s remarks,” replied Tauscher, who looking apologetic as Republicans applauded.

“Reclaiming my time,” Boehner said, “the gentleman’s had his 30 years to put this bill together. And the House is going to spend a whopping five hours debating the most profound piece of legislation to come to this floor in 100 years. And the chairman has the audacity to drop a 300-plus page amendment in the hopper at 3:09 a.m. this morning. And so I would ask my colleagues, don’t you think the American people expect us to understand what’s in this bill before we vote on it?”

“And so to get to page 34,” he continued.

What a scene. But alas it finally ended and the vote ensued. We knew where this was likely to wind up –after all the White House was engaged in some first-rate arm-twisting. Many Democrats who vowed to stand up the to White House received a phone call and melted like butter.

Republicans, encouraged by a stem-winder from Eric Cantor, voted overwhelmingly but not unanimously against the bill, declaring it to be madness to vote for a huge tax, job-killing bill in a recession. Democrats lost a stunning forty-four votes from their side — members who simply didn’t want to face the music back home. (The Democrats had to go so far as to fetch Patrick Kennedy, who had been out for rehab, and John Lewis, who had heart surgery, and  delay the resignation of Ellen Tauscher, who is heading to the State Department.)

The bill finally cleared by the slimmest of margins, with only 219 votes. Among those who didn’t  jump off the train and were left to take the heat on the Democratic side were Ohio Reps. John Boccierri and Mary Jo Kilroy (who has had two nail-biter elections in a row), Baron Hill of Indiana, Freshman Mark Schauer from Michigan and Virginia Freshman Tom Perriello. I’m sure the voters in Midwestern and other energy-producing states will be asking why their representatives voted to ship jobs from already high unemployment states overseas. Other Democrats who didn’t exactly live up to their self-styled reputations as fiscal conservatives include Heath Schuler, Carol Shea-Porter and Freshman Alan Grayson.

The freshmen who took the plunge may see visions of Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, the Democratic freshman who walked the plank for Bill Clinton’s energy tax in 1993 and promptly lost her seat. But maybe voters are more forgiving. After all, the recession should be over by 2010, right?

Eight Republicans, including three members from New Jersey and John McHugh (who has been tapped as Secretary of the Army) voted yes. In addition both Mark Kirk of Illinois and Mike Castle of Delaware, who may mount runs for Senate, voted yes perhaps hoping that their largely Blue states will think better of them for having supported the House Democratic leadership. If they do run, they’ll have some explaining to do in the primary.

Now it’s on to the Senate. Perhaps. A Senate source said bluntly, “They’re going to have a harder time getting votes in the Senate.” Gosh, if that is right did 44 Democrats and 8 Republicans cast their votes and incur untold grief for nothing? The only thing worse than taking a hard vote is seeing the other body reject it and criticize those who buckled under pressure from the White House.

The House members now head back to their districts during the July 4 break. Perhaps those who carried the day will get a ticker tape parade for passing a huge energy tax in order to save the planet. (Well, limit America’s output at any rate, because China and India will be delighted to pick up the slack.) Or maybe they will get an earful. Stay tuned.

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