The Whip

Congresswoman Diana DeGette will adopt any tactic—negotiation, browbeating, or ego massaging—to get what she wants: her legislation passed.

May 2009

Nine days before the 2008 presidential election, Congresswoman Diana DeGette found herself staring out at the sea of people overflowing from Civic Center Park. She had never seen 100,000 people, let alone spoken to that many, and though they weren't here for her it was gratifying to see that many Coloradans at a Democratic event. A long line of politicians— including Governor Bill Ritter, Senator Ken Salazar, and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper—were eager to get on the stage, so DeGette only would get a few minutes to speak. Besides, she was just part of the warm-up—everyone was really here to see Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

DeGette was in a tricky spot: Though she represented many of the voters gathered for the speech, she had endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primary. She assured voters that Obama would make good on Hillary's promises, encouraging them to help "turn Colorado as blue as the sky." And with a one-two barrage, she swiftly pumped up Obama while reminding the crowd of her pet issue: "To pursue the miracle of stem cell research, to find cures to countless diseases giving hope to thousands of patients and their families—it is Barack Obama who will support this important research and allow it to go forward."

Stepping off the stage, DeGette walked over to the VIP tent, where she made a beeline to Obama. The lanky candidate leaned in for a hug and a kiss, but DeGette was here to convert Obama to her cause.

"I wanted to tell you that I hope one of the first things you'll do is reverse President Bush's stem cell restrictions," she told the not-yet-elected president. DeGette had passed two bipartisan bills supporting stem cell research in the past three years, only to watch George W. Bush veto them. Obama, DeGette said, would just need to ink his name on an executive order and stem cell funding would be restored.

"I'll think about that," said Obama, smiling.

Five months later, and only seven weeks after Obama was sworn into office, DeGette hovers over the president in the White House's East Room. In his looping southpaw style, Obama signs his name on the executive order repealing Bush's stem cell funding restrictions. All the politicians and doctors in the room applaud, but no one is louder—or happier—than DeGette. Later in the day, she tells the Denver Post: "Over 10 years of work trying to get sensible stem cell policy, and literally with the stroke of a pen it happened."

This has been a good year for DeGette. With the retirement of Senator Wayne Allard in January, she became the seniormost Colorado lawmaker on Capitol Hill—the dean of the state's delegation. In February, President Obama signed into law another of her favored projects, the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which extended health insurance to four million uninsured children. And when the president chose Denver as his backdrop to sign the federal stimulus package, DeGette was at the airport to pick him up and ride in the presidential motorcade.

Sitting in her Washington, D.C., office on a winter day, DeGette is more relaxed than her more rehearsed C-SPAN persona. Dressed in a turtleneck and blazer, she jokes with an aide and hops up to check her cell phone in case it's her 15-year-old daughter, Frannie. The office, in the Rayburn House Office Building next to the Capitol, has the historic walnut desk and guest seating area you'd expect from a member of the party's leadership. It's also filled with tokens of DeGette's greatest hits: a collage of newspaper clippings about the stem cell debate, a picture of Obama speaking at the 2008 Denver Democratic National Convention at Invesco Field, and a framed copy of one of her most successful (and infamous) bills—the so-called "Bubble Bill." Passed more than 15 years ago in the Colorado Statehouse, the legislation created a safe, harassment-free zone around health and abortion clinics, and was later challenged, unsuccessfully, in the Colorado Supreme Court.

DeGette isn't a flashy headline-maker—she leaves that to the Nancy Pelosis and Barney Franks of America. She's a behind-the-scenes operator; as one of the chief deputy whips, she's charged with counting and securing the votes to ensure passage of Pelosi's and the Democrats' legislation. Her difficult days of serving in the minority are long gone, but even now, with a firm majority in the House and Obama in the White House, she acknowledges the challenges of passing legislation as the ruling party.

"In some ways the whipping job becomes more difficult because we do have to pass an agenda, and we have to have pretty good discipline to do that," DeGette says. "And if members think 'Well, we're in the majority, I don't have to vote with the caucus,' or [they] get overconfident, then we start to really lose our grip on the majority."