If a Democratic legislature passed a voter ID bill, it would disrupt the party line: that voter ID is a GOP scheme to disenfranchise voters. And besides, Wasserman Schultz said, President Obama doesn't want this bill to pass.
Fox, according to Brien, told Wasserman Schultz to have the president call him directly if he wanted to block the bill. "And he says to me, 'Rep., I've defended this bill to everybody,' " Brien recalls, "'but if the President of the United States calls me and tells me that we can't do the bill, we're not doing the bill.' "
Fox, Brien says, was laughing as he relayed the details of the call. But it was clear he was feeling the pressure.
O'Neill, the party whip, remembers the senior leadership team sitting down behind closed doors for a final gut check. "It was a very frank meeting," he says. Put aside the titles and personalities. "What do we all think of this?" The consensus, O'Neill says, was that the measure was good policy.
On the night of June 29, at 10:45 pm, Brien sat with John J. Flynn, chief legal counsel to the speaker, as he posted a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee for the next day to consider the bill.
Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello delivered the news, by phone, to Judiciary chairwoman Edith Ajello, a liberal Providence Democrat who had lobbied hard to block the bill.
"I expressed my displeasure," she recalled, diplomatically, in a recent interview.
Ajello was in touch with Rhode Island Democratic Party chairman Ed Pacheco to plot strategy. And the next morning, Brien says, Pacheco called him and asked that he pull the bill. Brien declined. And after the measure passed out of committee on a 7-2 vote, he was feeling good about his chances.
But he was still nervous. All day long, he watched the House calendar refresh, waiting and waiting for the bill to come up for a vote. Then suddenly, it seemed, his nightmare scenario was upon him.
Fox wandered over and sat down next to Brien, looking sullen. "We got to talk," the Speaker said. Brien felt the blood rush out of his face. "It came in, I got the call," Fox said, "President Obama does not want me to pass this bill today."
Brien was silent for a moment, but he was "freaking out inside." Then, looking over Fox's shoulder, he saw a gaggle of representatives huddled in a corner, "laughing their asses off."
Brien offered up an epithet he asked me not to print. And Fox, he said, laughed to the point of tears.
There were some sharp words on the House floor. O'Neill, surprised by the passion of the opposition, recalls stepping aside at one point to get away from it all. But in the end, the vote was lopsided — 54-21. In the Senate, it passed 34-2.
The bill was in Governor Chafee's lap now.
Voter ID opponents felt reasonably confident they could win him over. They'd spoken with members of the administration who were opposed to the measure. And they figured Chafee's good government instincts would tilt their way.