Fiscal conservatives are still smarting over the narrow passage of the new half-trillion-dollar Medicare prescription drug benefit package, the biggest new entitlement program in 40 years.
But conservatives may be even more infuriated when they learn the sordid details of just how the White House and Republican establishment pulled off this victory.
At the same time, there were many conservative heroes in this fight who withstood intense pressure from their own party and voted for principle.
Two Republican members lead the conservative revolt: Representatives Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mike Pence of Indiana.
Mike was all over the news eloquently dismantling this bill, arguing that he could never in good conscience look his children in the eyes and tell them that he had voted for a $1-trillion entitlement program that they some day would have to pay for.
Sitting in the Oval Office of the White House, he told George Bush: “With all due respect, Mr. President, I didn’t come to this town to create new entitlements, but to rein in the ones we already have.” President Bush said he didn’t either, but still supported the bill.
The day of the vote it became clear to Toomey and Pence that there were 30 Republicans who were solid “no” votes, or people leaning toward a “no” vote.
One who was a hard “no” vote from the very beginning was Rep. Tom Feeney of Florida. Tom is the freshman class representative to the House leadership, a position that goes to the newcomer whom the speaker wants to groom for a leadership position.
Feeney, who had been speaker of the Florida House, was told his stubborn “no” vote would set him back three years in his bid to climb the House ladder. He would be relegated to a position of a backbencher.
They put their arms around him and shook their heads and told him how disappointed they were in him. “Why jeopardize your career, Tom, over this one little vote?” they all asked.
Principle Over Politics
Feeney never wavered. He, too, told the President that he could not in good conscience vote for an expansion in the welfare state. Of all the “no” votes, Tom probably had the most to lose.
The night of the vote, Pat Toomey hosted a dinner at the Hunan Dynasty restaurant on Capitol Hill for the 30 Republicans who were against the bill. The message: Stick together. The plan of action was for these conservatives to go to the floor and record their “no” votes immediately to signal to the Democrats that there were enough Republican votes to kill the bill. It almost worked.
In the first 10 minutes of the vote there were 16 Republican “no” votes recorded. The Democrats, who did not want to hand Bush a “victory” on this issue, voted “no” en masse, with the exception of about a dozen, who waited on the sidelines to see what would happen on the Republican side of the aisle.
After an hour the Republicans were stuck at roughly 210 votes for the bill.
Now the intense lobbying pressure began. Members were promised pork-barrel projects. They were threatened with primary challengers. Their big donors were told to lobby them and threaten to cut off campaign contributions. The President, who had just returned from Britain, was awakened at 4:00 in the morning to make phone calls. This is when things started to get very ugly.
Republican Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri got a call from a state legislator, no doubt at the urging of the White House, threatening to run a primary challenge against him if he voted “no.” I talked to Todd several times during the day urging him not to buckle. Akin withstood intense pressure from his colleagues all night long and looked like he had come out of a torture chamber by 5:00 a.m. But he held firm and voted “no.”
Another hero was Republican Rep. Scott Garrett of New Jersey. The leadership lambasted Garrett for the supposed political suicide he was committing by voting “no.” But when I asked him a few hours before the vote what he was going to do, he said: “I am for freedom.” He was the only Republican from the entire Northeast to vote “no.”
By 5:00 a.m. many members were starting to suffer from sleep deprivation. (Was the scheduling an intentional ploy to break down their will to resist?) The drug bill was stuck at a vote of 216 to 218. The vote count on the board had not moved in nearly an hour. Incredibly, the bill was going down to defeat. According to the Washington Post, on several occasions House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas was ready to throw in the towel and end the vote. Each time he was urged by the White House to hold off a little longer.
Then the White House and the whip team tried one more desperation tactic: They went to two Western state members, Trent Franks (Ariz.) and Butch Otter (Idaho), and told them that if they didn’t change their votes the President would immediately instruct the House leadership to pass the Democratic version of the bill-which was much worse than even this bill. These two were told that they were the only ones standing between passage of a horrible Medicare drug bill.
I’m convinced the White House was bluffing. We’ll never know-because Franks and Otter changed to “yes” votes at 5:50 a.m. after a phone call to the President, and the bill passed, 220-215. Poor Trent Franks was white as a ghost when he walked off the House floor. Trent is terrific guy and I truly believe that he simply allowed himself to get snookered. I have talked to him several times since the vote (he even called me at 8:00 that Saturday morning to tell me what had happened). He seemed whipped, and I have no doubt his conscience is gnawing away at him-and will do so for a long time. I actually feel more sorry for Trent Franks than anyone else in this whole unseemly escapade.
If we could have won this vote against the most powerful whip operation in the history of House and over the wishes of a popular Republican President, it would have been a shot across the bow at the Republican establishment, strongly indicating that conservatives are sick of the spending splurge that is going on inside Washington these last few years.
The budget has grown by 27% in two year-a faster rate of growth in the budget than at any time since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Republican leaders in the White House and in Congress seem entirely unconcerned about the orgy of spending and debt. They are in denial. Defeating this bill would have dropped an ice-cold bucket of water on their heads and helped them snap out of it. So close!
Still, I’m convinced this is a hollow victory for the Republican Party bosses. The bill could blow up in their laps when seniors see the details of the turkey they’ve just been served.
Worse, the bill threatens to further demoralize fiscal conservative voters who are infuriated by the GOP’s massive expansion of government. I know I’m demoralized. As Mike Pence told me last week, “We Republicans seem to have forgotten who we are and why voters sent us here.”
We now have two big government parties in Washington. And we have only 25 Republicans in the House and four in the Senate who are trying to forcefully pull the Republicans in an anti-big government direction.
It’s time for conservatives to start adding to these numbers. Probably the best way to start is to get Pat Toomey elected to the Senate in 2004.