When House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) heard Republicans were going to hold a vote on the extremely conservative Republican Study Committee budget, a lightbulb turned on in his head.
"I thought to myself the Republican leadership is probably thinking we're going to defeat it for them," Hoyer told me in a phone interview Friday. "I said to myself I'm not interested in seeing that happen. I want the Republicans to show what they believe. And if a majority of them believe that that's the kind of budget [they want] the American people need to know that."
The RSC is a very large bloc of conservative Republican House members. They introduced a 10-year plan for America that makes the already far-reaching House budget look fairly moderate. It was supposed to be a symbolic vote -- one that allowed conservative members to go on the record in support of slashing $9 trillion in spending knowing full well it would never be adopted as the official position of the House and the Republican Party. Hoyer figured them out.
"I also knew that if we telegraphed that early, they would obviously try to anticipate it, work their caucus early," he said. "As a result I did not have a whip meeting on this -- I did discuss it with the Leader [Nancy Pelosi], I discussed it with the Democratic leadership. I told them it was my plan. And they were all for that."
If he'd briefed his caucus on the tactic days ahead of the vote, word might have leaked. So he gave them just about five minutes notice.
"Then today, I had a meeting with my senior whip team, assigned them around the floor, and then just before the vote...we sent out an email to the BlackBerrys of our members saying that a). we want you to vote late, b). we want to vote present," Hoyer explained. "And then on the floor, my whips explained to members why we were doing that."
That led to the chaos on the House floor late Friday morning. With almost all Democrats voting present, Republicans realized they were about to accidentally pass a plan that was too politically radioactive even to them. So they pressed several of their own members -- including Reps. David Dreier (R-CA), Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), Buck McKeon (R-CA), and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) -- to switch their votes from yes to no. Indeed, when they realized what the Dems were up to, Republicans managed to flip just as many votes as they'd need to kill the RSC plan, even if every Democrat voted "present." Only 15 Democrats declined to switch their votes from "no" to "present." The plan failed by 16 votes.
"We got a lot of them to change, not every one of them to change," Hoyer said. Those who didn't, including several Blue Dogs wouldn't budge. "There were a variety of reasons. I think some have tough races. Some said they'd never voted present. I was disappointed that they did not follow what I think was a strategy to highlight the position of the Republican Party."
Now that Republicans are wise to the maneuver, they might think twice before they put symbolic conservative measures on the floor. If they're not more careful, they'll fall into the same trap.
"It depends on whether they continue to offer policies that are clearly inconsistent with the American mainstream," Hoyer reasoned. "If they continue to do that their members are either going to have to decide early that they're going to have to vote against those policies, or they're going to be back in that position."