A Long Night's Journey Into Yes in the House

Times Staff Writers

Just a few hours after an exhausted President Bush returned from his transatlantic trip to Great Britain, he was roused just before dawn Saturday with some urgent business on the home front.

His cherished proposal to overhaul and expand Medicare was about to be rejected by the House, and Bush was called to exercise presidential muscle to rescue the bill.

Bush got on the phone and began an eleventh-hour round of personal lobbying that turned the near-defeat of the Medicare bill by the House into a 220-215 victory after a roll call vote of nearly three hours that did not end until dawn.

The turning point came after Bush talked to some of the 26 Republicans who were defying their leadership and opposing the bill to provide prescription drug coverage under Medicare.

About 5:50 a.m., two of the dissidents caved and marched to the well of the House to switch their votes, clearing the way for the House to approve the Medicare bill that was supposed to be a crowning achievement of this session of Congress.

"I did not want to vote for this bill," said Republican C.L. "Butch" Otter of Idaho, one of the last-minute converts. "The president was working the votes very hard." The House vote turned out to be the longest roll call vote -- 2 hours and 50 minutes -- in memory as GOP leaders refused to close it until they won.

Democrats called the hardball maneuvering a shameless abuse of power that undercut the whole notion that legislative battles are fought in the traditional 15 minutes allotted for a roll call.

"On election day, you cannot say we will keep the polls open 15 more hours," said Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank.

Even a senior House Republican aide said the triumph amounted to "winning ugly." The drama of the day leading up to the predawn vote was a testament to how pivotal the Medicare bill has become -- to Bush, to Republicans in Congress and to the battle between the two parties as they head into the 2004 elections.

For Bush, the Medicare bill is one of the last big pieces of the domestic agenda he wants to take into his reelection campaign. Republicans in Congress hope that enacting the bill will inoculate them against long-standing Democratic charges that they are hostile to the elderly. For Democrats, the bill's gaps in coverage and heavy subsidies for private health plans provide more ammunition for their efforts to portray Bush and the Republicans as tools of special interests at the expense of ordinary people.

The vitriolic debate also culminates months of increasing antagonism between the parties in Congress, as Democrats have become increasingly united and Republicans have repeatedly used bare-knuckles tactics to eke out victories in the narrowly divided House.

The final vote in the Medicare bill marked the end of a day of uncertainty about whether Republicans had the votes to pass the measure. Democratic leaders leaned on their rank and file to oppose the bill as a matter of party principle, because they believed the drug benefit was too skimpy and the role of the private sector too big. At the same time, GOP leaders were trying -- unsuccessfully -- to quash a rebellion among conservative Republicans who opposed such a big expansion of a Great Society program without more market-oriented reforms.

For many members, the bill was just plain confusing: 681 pages and laden with provisions of baffling complexity, it was not even available for most members to read until Friday morning. Heading into an evening party caucus, Florida Republican Katherine Harris confessed, "I'm in such a fog about this Medicare thing."

Long before the House began debating the bill, Bush made several calls to wavering Republicans from Air Force One en route from Britain.

When GOP leaders brought the bill to the floor late Friday, they knew they were still a few votes short. They rolled the dice, gambling that fence sitters would commit to the bill only when faced with the reality of a roll call.

"It's part of the art of getting the votes," said Stuart Roy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas. "The pressure of the vote, the reality of the bill actually being on the floor pushes people from the undecided column into the yes column."

That was the hope. It did not work that way at first. After the 15-minute clock ran out on the vote, Republicans fell far short of a majority: Not a single Democrat had voted for the bill and 26 Republicans had voted against it.

Eventually, with the help of a few Democratic defections, the gap closed to 216 to 218 -- two stubborn votes short of passing. And there the tally remained for two hours, as House Republicans used their control over the gavel to leave the vote open until they found some converts.

"I wasn't going to give up until we got it done," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois said later.

The chamber was eerily quiet, even though about three-quarters of the members were there. A few read newspapers, some fell asleep. Hastert and other party heavyweights roamed the floor from lawmaker to lawmaker -- finding no takers. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson joined in, a rare appearance by a Cabinet official on the House floor.

It was not an easy job. GOP leaders considered making concessions to Republicans upset that the bill did not include provisions to make it easier for U.S. citizens to buy cheaper drugs in Canada. But such changes would have lost them votes among other Republicans adamantly opposed to easing drug import rules.

Finally, the arm-twisting centered on the cadre of conservatives who opposed the bill because they did not want to expand government so vastly and because they did not think the bill did enough to reform Medicare. The group included some of the party's most ideological conservatives -- which made them less susceptible to some of the traditional tools of horse-trading.

"They weren't holding out for a bridge," said one senior GOP leadership aide. "It was a philosophical point."

That is when David Hobbs, chief White House lobbyist, decided to call in Bush's help, according to a senior GOP aide. Around 5 a.m. the president talked by telephone to Otter and several other Republicans in an anteroom near the House chamber.

"He discussed with lawmakers the benefits of the bill and urgent need to vote yes and keep their commitment to seniors," said White House spokeswoman Suzy DeFrancis. "He was willing to do what he could to get it across the finish line."

GOP leaders used a harder line in leaning on conservatives: They argued that if this bill were allowed to die, it would be followed by one they would like even less.

"That was the message, a not-too-subtle message," Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin of Louisiana said. "This is the best you're ever going to get."

The message finally got to Otter and fellow conservative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican. Their vote switches brought the tally to 218 to 216 in favor of the bill. A few other lawmakers then switched their votes to the winning side, making the final count 220 to 215.

The roll call that began at 3 a.m. ended at 5:53 a.m., to Republican cheers of triumph. Democrats fumed.

"This vote was stolen from us by the Republicans," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.

A little later, DeLay strolled through the Capitol's grand rotunda grinning from ear to ear. "The sun is coming up!" he declared. Indeed, it was.

Times staff writer Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.

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