The Story of the Three Hour Roll Call

Steve Moore of the Club for Growth has written an analysis telling the dramatic story of the Medicare bill’s approval by the House. Every conservative should read it. With his permission, I excerpt much of it here.

The story of how this bill actually passed the House is worth recounting in some sordid detail, because there were so many House conservatives who acted heroically.

In the end, the bill passed with just two votes to spare in the House in a roll call that started at 3:00 a.m. on Saturday morning and ended just before 6:00 a.m. This was the longest time ever taken for a House vote.

During the days before the vote Club for Growth Advocacy alerted every House Republican that we opposed the bill because of its enormous cost and because we believe it is a giant leap toward Hillary-health care. We released a poll showing that most seniors are satisfied with their existing prescription drug insurance coverage and that seniors oppose the bill when they learn of the details. We called all the Club members in the House, in some cases repeatedly, to remind them of our opposition and to urge them to hold firm and vote no.

Two lieutenants quickly emerged to lead the conservative revolt against the bill: Pat Toomey and Mike Pence. Both of them were elected with Club support, of course. 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 would have to pay for some day. 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.”

The day of the vote it became clear to Toomey and Pence that there were 30 Republicans who were solid no votes, or leaning toward a no vote. One member who was a hard no vote from the very beginning was Tom Feeney of Florida, also elected with Club backing last year. Tom is the freshman class representative to the House leadership, a position that goes to the newcomer who the Speaker wants to groom for a leadership position. Feeney was told that 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 back bencher. 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?” Feeney never wavered. He too told the President that he could not in good conscience vote for an expansion in the welfare state. He told the House leaders that “this is not about my career, this is about my country.” 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 Restaurant on Capitol Hill for 20 of the Republicans who were against the bill. The message was “stick together.” Toomey and Pence had devised a fallback plan to vote down the Medicare bill then come back to the President with a much scaled back plan that would 1) cover only those seniors who don’t have existing prescription drug insurance and 2) retain the health savings accounts (the one redeeming feature of the bill). This was exactly what we at the Club and the Wall Street Journal urged as a sensible alternative that would cost only one-third of what the conference report cost. The plan of action was for these conservatives to go to the floor and record their “no” votes immediately, which would signal to the Democrats that there were not enough Republican votes to pass the bill. It almost worked.

In the first 10 minutes of the vote there were 17 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. When the normal 15 minutes passed, the bill was losing by 15 votes. After an hour it appeared that the House rejected the bill as 218 representatives, a majority, had voted “nay.”

Now the intense lobbying pressure began. Members were promised pork barrel projects. They were threatened with primary challengers. The President, who had just returned from Britain, called lawmakers at 5:00 in the morning to round up a few more votes.

Todd Akin of Missouri got a call from a state legislator earlier in the day, 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 by 5:00 a.m. looked like he had come out of a torture chamber. But he held firm and voted no.

But nothing compares to the disgusting behavior of the Republican leadership toward Michigan’s Nick Smith. Smith is retiring from the House and his son is running in a crowded field to succeed him. The leadership first offered unbelievable enticements to change his vote to a yes. First, they said that the leadership would take the unusual step of endorsing his son Brad in the tight primary race. Smith said no deal. Then they promised to raise $100,000 for Brad Smith if he voted yes. He still said no. Then several Republican leaders threatened that if he didn’t change his vote they would raise money for his son’s opponents. At this point, Nick’s wife called her son to tell him of the situation. Brad Smith phoned his dad and heroically told him to vote his conscience and to not worry about the House race. Smith stuck with his no vote. Several infuriated Republicans in the House were still fuming after the vote and taunted Nick Smith with threats that “we will make sure your son never wins this seat.” Ugly stuff.

Another hero was Rep. Scott Garrett, who of course replaced the RINO Marge Roukema with Club member backing. Garrett was lambasted by the leadership for the political suicide that they said 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.” And he was the only House Republican in the entire northeast to vote no.

By 5:00 a.m. many members were starting to suffer from sleep deprivation (was this done intentionally to break down their will to resist?). The drug bill was still stuck at a vote of 216-218. 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 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 and Butch Otter, 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. These two were told that they were the only ones standing between passage of an even worse Medicare drug bill. I’m convinced the White House was bluffing and this was simply another scheme to peel off votes. We’ll never know, because Franks and Otter changed to yes votes after getting calls from the President and the bill passed 220-215 as two other lawmakers voted to be on the prevailing side.

Poor Trent Franks looked like he was white as a ghost when he walked off the House floor. Trent is a 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 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. Actually, I feel sorrier for Trent Franks than anyone else in this whole unseemly escapade.

“I went to college at the Citadel and so I have lived through the hazing process,” said Rep. Gresham Barrett, another no vote. “But the barrage of attacks we absorbed from our own colleagues during those three hours was much worse.”

I really believe that if we could have won this vote against the most powerful whip operation in the history of House and a popular Republican President, it would have proven to the Republican establishment that conservatives are sick of the spending splurge that is going on in Washington. The budget has grown by 27% in two years, a faster rate of growth in the budget than at anytime since LBJ’s presidency. Republican leaders in the White House and the Congress seem entirely unconcerned about the orgy of spending and debt. They are in denial. A deserved defeat of this bill would have dropped an ice cold bucket of water on their heads and helped them snap out of it. So close!

I’m convinced this is a hollow victory for the Republican Party bosses. The bill could blow up in the Republicans’ laps when seniors see the details of the carved up 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.”

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