By John Gizzi and David Freddoso
The House Republican leadership kept the late-night vote open almost three hours-toward the break of dawn-but the prescription drug entitlement still seemed on its way to a 216-to-218 defeat. Then just before 6 a.m., Representatives Trent Franks (R.-Ariz.) and Butch Otter (R.-Idaho) switched their votes from “no” to “yes.”
After a few vote-changes by Democrats, the bill passed by a final tally of 220-215 (See “Arm-Twisting and Vote-Switching on RX Drug Entitlement”).
This is the story of how a small band of committed conservatives stood up to enormous political pressure and almost defeated a massive new entitlement program proposed by their own party.
Around 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, November 22, Republican Representatives John Shadegg (Ariz.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Mike Pence (Ind.), Trent Franks (Ariz.), and Butch Otter (Idaho), all opponents of the bill, were huddled outside the House chamber. The GOP leadership told them that if the bill were defeated, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) would bring up either the same bill again or, amazingly, a Democratic package twice as costly. That proposal, they were told, already had the 218 votes needed to pass.
Worse, they were also told, President Bush was behind the plan, and would sign the Democratic bill if it reached his desk.
Knowing that President Bush has never vetoed a bill, the conservatives were shocked by this appalling threat, which endangered the solidarity and resolve they had maintained all night. “Both Jeff [Flake] and I made it clear to Trent [Franks] and Butch [Otter] that if they chose to change their votes, we would not fault them,” said Shadegg, in retrospect not the clearest way of keeping them in opposition.
At that point, Shadegg and Pence had a brief but heated exchange, sources said. The two men calmed down and made up after raising their voices at each other.
The five opponents of the bill then met in an office in the Capitol with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.), DeLay, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (Calif.), and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who had been working the House all night.
Franks, who had earlier rejected pleas by Hastert and DeLay to change his vote, agreed to call President Bush. Franks finally told Bush that he and Otter would provide the switches necessary for the package to pass. And they did, apparently so taken with the argument that a worse bill actually might be enacted by their leaders and signed by their President that they changed their votes. Pence said that he disagrees with their rationale for switching.
Other conservatives held firm under enormous pressure, most notably retiring Rep. Nick Smith (R.-Mich.), whose son Brad hopes to win his safe 7th District seat in a crowded Republican primary (see “Politics 2003”).
Smith told HUMAN EVENTS he was told his son would get “almost unlimited financial support, plus some nationally recognized names to endorse him,” if Smith voted for the drug bill. “This comes after [Brad] had sold part of his property to put his own $100,000 into his campaign,” said Smith.
But his son told him, said Smith, “‘Hey, Dad, you stick to your guns and do the right thing. I don’t want to go to Congress that way.'” Smith didn’t waver.
“The only sad part is that I may have hurt Brad’s chances of getting in, because some of the members were pretty adamant that they were going to work to make sure he didn’t,” said Smith. “I thought that after 20 years in elected office, I knew what arm-twisting was. This was pretty aggressive arm-twisting.”
Smith refused to name names, but other sources confirmed a report by columnist Bob Novak that Rep. Duke Cunningham (R.-Calif.) had taunted Smith after the vote-waving his checkbook and promising to donate to Brad Smith’s primary opponents.
Rep. Walter Jones (R.-N.C.) told HUMAN EVENTS he would rather resign from Congress than support the costly new federal entitlement program.
“[Chief GOP Deputy Whip] Eric Cantor [R.-Va.] did approach me on the floor and asked me if I would vote for the Medicare package,” said Jones. “And I said, ‘If the Good Lord came down and asked me, I’d say no.'”
“My hope was that they would make this a better bill,” said Rep. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.), who also voted “no.” “But this never happened.”
DeMint, who is running for the Senate in a crowded primary, said several doctors in his state called to tell him they would not support him if he voted no. “I said I was doing something that went beyond the next election, and supporters were being bought with short-term candy in a stocking,” he said.
Freshmen Scott Garrett (N.J.), Gresham Barrett (S.C.), and Tom Feeney (Fla.), among others, were also hammered. Feeney personally told President Bush over the phone that he had “not come to Washington to ratify and expand Great Society programs.” Some House members, sources say, threatened to delay Feeney’s anticipated ascent into the House leadership. But he was overheard telling his tempters on the House floor, “This isn’t about my career-this is about my country.”
The conservative effort was a “successful failure,” Pence told HUMAN EVENTS, because a net of six more Republicans opposed the bill this time than when it first came up in June. “When 25 principled conservatives held on for almost three hours in the longest vote in history, I was pretty proud to be a participant.”
The administration made up for the six additional GOP “nos” by winning a net of seven new Democratic “yes” votes.
Meanwhile, Republican Representatives Richard Burr (N.C.)-a 2004 Senate candidate-Steve Buyer (Ind.), and James Sensenbrenner (Wis.) who voted against the bill in June, voted for it this time. And Rep. Ernest Istook (R.-Okla.) switched in the middle of the voting period from “no” to “yes.” All four Republicans gave the same explanation as Franks and Otter: They had been persuaded to believe that their President would actually sign an even worse bill.
Congressmen John Culberson (R.-Tex.) and Jeff Miller (R.-Fla.), on the other hand, changed their votes the opposite way-from “yes” to “no”-at the last minute, once the bill’s passage had been ensured.