Tauscher to Cede Her House Throne
June 22, 2009
By Tory Newmyer
Roll Call Staff
Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) was getting frustrated.In the midst of a heated budget debate this spring with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), the GOP’s master of House rules and process was having trouble reclaiming his time, and he lodged his complaint with the presiding lawmaker, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.). “I asked you to allow me to reclaim my time,” Dreier said to Tauscher. “I said it three times with enthusiasm, so I don’t believe that I was talking over the gentleman.”
An unruffled Tauscher responded that the cross talk made it difficult to know who controlled the floor. She admonished Dreier to “respect the gavel.” And then she gave the Rules Committee’s top Republican another rhetorical wrist slap, warning lawmakers to “bear in mind the principle that proper courtesy in the process of yielding and reclaiming time in debate, and especially in asking another to yield, helps to foster the spirit of mutual comity that elevates our deliberations above mere argument.”
It was a brief moment, but it revealed why Tauscher has emerged as the young majority’s most trusted steward of frequently tense proceedings on the House floor.
Facing down Dreier, the minority’s most formidable floor presence, less practiced gavel-wielders might have folded, or lost their cool. But Tauscher has proved an unflappable arbiter, earning her an unofficial post as the go-to speaker pro tem that is reflected in the hours she’s logged atop the rostrum.
So far this Congress, she has spent about 60 hours in the chair, about 13 hours longer than her nearest rival. And Tauscher was the most frequent presence in the chair during the last Congress as well, racking up a whopping 175 hours.
“I’ve wanted to throw the gavel at a few people,” said Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), a member of the small clutch of Democrats who most often volunteer for the duty. “She can be yelled at and prodded and poked without losing her cool. If there’s an incident, she’s the person I’d most like to see in the chair.”
Now, with Tauscher awaiting Senate confirmation for a State Department gig as the Obama administration’s lead arms control negotiator, her colleagues are starting to determine who will fill the various roles she carved out for herself in the House. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) is in line to replace her as leader of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition. Less clear is who will take over for her as chairwoman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces — or as the party’s favorite to keep things calm when Republicans start throwing bombs during floor debates.
Like Republicans before them, Democratic leaders try to cycle as many of their own as they can into the Speaker’s chair but look to a short roster to keep things on track day-to-day. Beyond Tauscher and Capuano, that list includes Reps. Jason Altmire (Pa.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Diana DeGette (Colo.), Tim Holden (Pa.), Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.), Stephen Lynch (Mass.), Ed Pastor (Ariz.), Earl Pomeroy (N.D.), Mike Ross (Ark.), John Salazar (Colo.), José Serrano (N.Y.), John Tierney (Mass.) and Anthony Weiner (N.Y.).
The Speaker’s office circulates a schedule at the start of the week seeking volunteers. But leaders will also tap proven presiders if they anticipate a contentious debate or tough vote.
Tauscher has seen her share of both.
Last year, she was in the chair when Republicans staged a walkout to protest Democratic attempts to subpoena former Bush White House officials instead of debating the administration’s warrantless wiretapping effort. A few weeks later, Tauscher presided over a rare secret session of the House — the first since 1983 — that Republicans called to discuss that program. That performance, which she said she still can’t talk about, earned her a mounted gavel she keeps at home.
Two similar trophies hang in her office, bestowed for presiding over the vote to expand a children’s health insurance program earlier this year and the second, successful attempt at passing a Wall Street bailout last fall.
But it was the first bailout vote a week earlier, which failed, that was likely the most dramatic of Tauscher’s short career as a speaker pro tem. Tauscher — who at 25 had become the youngest woman ever to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and spent 14 years on Wall Street as an investment banker — had a keen sense of what was at stake that day. “I knew exactly what was going on with the markets even though I couldn’t see it,” she said.
And her parents, watching on cable at home, saw a split-screen that showed Tauscher presiding over a chamber in chaos while the stock market nose-dived. Later, she would tell her mother, “The Dow Jones Industrial Average is not an applause meter,” to explain it was nothing personal. At the time, however, she had to keep the vote open — despite GOP shouts of protest — while leaders of both parties searched for “Yes” votes, then gavel it closed when they came up short.
“You have to have resolution,” she said. “At the same time, it was very disappointing to close the vote and have the outcome we had.”
Most days, Tauscher has had better luck keeping order, something her colleagues said she does with a measured voice, a restrained gavel and her signature move: a punishing peer over her glasses.
“If you’re making a highlight reel, you could fill up 15 to 20 minutes just with her icy stares,” Weiner said. “She’s often as intimidating with her looks as she is with her words or actions.”
It’s an ability Tauscher said she gets from her mother. “She didn’t ever really yell. But she would give you a look and you’d think to yourself, ‘Well, I know I’ve just shrunk 10 inches.’”
But the job requires more than delivering silent reprimands. Tauscher said she tried to focus on “optics, pitch, tone and tempo.”
“You want to have a tempo of moving things forward, but you also don’t want to act as if you can just sluice the stuff through,” she said. “People have got to be heard … and if you have an air of cordiality, of professional respect, then that is perhaps what other people on the floor will pick up and try to do it that way.”