It was time to confront defeat on the balanced-budget amendment.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), his normally tanned face ashen, had been on the Senate floor for 32 agonizing minutes. "There's still time to repent," he told opponents in a final appeal.
But there would be no victory Thursday, and Dole's mien darkened as the roll was called and each senator rose to cast his or her vote. One lawmaker remained unaccounted for.
A hush fell over the gallery. An aide whispered the name of the missing senator, and Dole rolled his eyes, then looked at his watch.
The heavy mahogany doors of the Senate chamber parted, and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.)--Dole's chief rival for the GOP presidential nomination--burst onto the floor with a grin on his face and an "aye" on his lips. Although the measure he had championed for 10 years in the Senate was going down to defeat, Gramm appeared untroubled.
"We thought we had the door locked," Dole quipped acidly in a later interview.
Of all the winners and losers in the fight over the balanced-budget amendment, few played their roles more dramatically on Thursday than Dole and Gramm.
Dole, the pragmatic Midwesterner respected for his legislative skills, presided over a devastating loss. Gramm, the uncompromising Texas conservative, lost too. Yet he also appears to have won.
"Gramm is energized, and the last thing he wants is for things to work well, for the country to get the sense that problems are being tended to and no further radical direction is needed," said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. "He needs discontent and conservative anger to fuel his candidacy, and this defeat helps him."
Dole's candidacy, by contrast, rests on his reputation as a conservative who "makes things happen," Mann said. And on Thursday, the objective that is closest to conservatives' hearts--a constitutional amendment to balance the budget--failed to happen. In the eyes of many political activists deciding whether to cast their lot with Dole or Gramm, Mann said, that failure is Dole's responsibility.
After the vote, Gramm avoided criticizing Dole directly. But he was unsparing in his assessment of the consequences of trying to negotiate a compromise.
"I in no way fault the majority leader for trying one more time," Gramm said. But, he added, "the net result is that it let some people who weren't going to be with us anyway find a little fig leaf by trying to confuse people that this has something to do with Social Security."
Dole defended his role on Thursday, telling reporters that having delivered 52 of 53 Republican votes was "pretty good."
"I wasn't elected Democratic leader," Dole said. "I'm not responsible for that."
Nor, said many of his defenders, was Dole responsible for the flurry of eleventh-hour negotiations that ultimately left Republican leaders empty-handed. Those negotiations and their failure were the responsibility of the bill's floor managers, said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is normally a strong partisan of Gramm's.
"If we had handled the Social Security issue earlier, more effectively, we wouldn't have lost," McCain said. "And Republicans in general will suffer for this loss."
But others faulted Dole's willingness--amid the competing demands of a campaign--to leave the balanced-budget amendment in the hands of colleagues like Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). The criticism underscores the difficulty that Dole will continue to have as long as he is an active presidential candidate and Senate majority leader. Both roles require time and energy, but legislative leadership also requires a willingness to compromise that sometimes conflicts with projecting the image of a strong political leader.
"The presidency is about leadership, and while maybe Dole was a little more forceful today, he certainly hasn't been through the week," said independent Republican pollster Ed Goeas. "I don't think he has been served well by his efforts to cast himself as the new kinder, gentler Bob Dole. People want him to jump in. Part of his problem is that he is perceived as walking behind the parade of the (Republican) revolution, and I don't think this week did anything to dispel that notion."
Gramm, unencumbered by institutional responsibilities, has little need to be kind to the opposition. On Thursday, he was quick to cast himself as the forceful leader he believes the voters want.
"It's time to stop compromising and start fighting," said Gramm, declaring that the defeat of the balanced-budget amendment had stiffened his resolve to stand up for undiluted conservative principles.
"I want to quit trying to come up with agreements we can't make work. We've got to have a balanced-budget amendment that allows us to fulfill the commitments we make. And we're not going to work out a deal with these (Democrats) anyway. So why help them put out that smoke screen? I think Republicans have reached that conclusion."
With a pause, Gramm responded simply: "I assume so."