The Whip

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

May 2009

DeGette's dogged, by-the-book climb in the House made her short-lived January bid to take Ken Salazar's open Senate seat very surprising. Sure, every congressperson dreams of being a senator, but DeGette had never publicly expressed an interest in statewide politics, nor had she taken up any statewide issues or joined any Colorado-centric House committees. (In other words, she was no Mark Udall.) Add to that a public perception that DeGette is a liberal's liberal, and you could almost hear the 2010 Republican attack ads: She's cochair of the pro-choice caucus. She's the lady who wants to use your tax dollars to fund the destruction of human embryos for research. She called vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin an "insult to women." And she contributes to the Huffington Post!

But DeGette seemed irked that the papers and pundits weren't mentioning her as a candidate along with Mayor John Hickenlooper, State House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, and Congressman Ed Perlmutter. It was a venerable boys' club—and she had been in the political game longer than any of them. So there she was, talking to the editorial board of the Denver Post, making an impassioned defense of her candidacy. "Colorado has never had a woman senator or a woman governor," she said. Wringing and waving her hands, DeGette continued: "I think it's kind of ridiculous that, after all these years, we've never had a woman in either of those positions."

Just two weeks after jumping into the contest for the Salazar seat, she withdrew. She had made her point as a feminist and returned to Plan A: Remain vice chair of Energy and Commerce and keep moving up the Democratic congressional ladder with the goal of becoming House Majority Whip. And at a time when the Democrats need to keep all their members in line and voting for the party—not to mention trying to reach across the aisle to bring moderate Republicans over—DeGette's negotiating skills are needed now, more than ever.

"If [Obama and Pelosi] are serious about bipartisan support, my sense is that DeGette would be somebody who could go out there and try to get it," says pollster Ciruli. "I don't think there's any doubt she has the skill set to go out and bring people in."

Minutes after President Obama signed the long-awaited stem cell executive order, DeGette was out working the press on the front lawn of the White House. It was a relatively mild and sunny March day in Washington, but the wind was whipping fast and furious, causing DeGette's shoulder-length hair to blow every which way as the news outlets stood in line to hear her sound bite. CNN, Bloomberg—even Hardball host Chris Matthews was standing by on-the-air, waiting to interview the congresswoman. Obama's signature was on that order, but the day belonged to DeGette.

DeGette informed reporters she wasn't wasting any more time—she had planned a meeting with congressional leadership that afternoon to set up a timeline for legislation to complement the president's executive order. As of press time, DeGette was hoping that it would be passed, by a bipartisan effort, by the end of spring.

By the time Matthews got a chance to interview DeGette, he had already spoken with Congressman Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who ripped the executive order as an abomination to the idea of life. DeGette countered: "Many pro-life advocates say [stem cell research is] the ultimate pro-life decision." She rolled the words over, latching onto her new phrase, pleased at having turned her opponents' words against them. In her next interview, with CNN, she told the anchor, "This is the ultimate pro-life decision." And with that, the whip had found her latest angle.

Maggie Master is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and a frequent contributor to 5280. E-mail her at [email protected].