14 years in the Michigan Legislature and 11 years
in Congress, Rep. Nick Smith had never experienced
anything like it. House Speaker Dennis Hastert
and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy
Thompson, in the wee hours last Saturday morning,
pressed him to vote for the Medicare bill. But
Smith refused. Then things got personal.
self term-limited, is leaving Congress. His lawyer
son Brad is one of five Republicans seeking to
replace him from a GOP district in Michigan's
southern tier. On the House floor, Nick Smith
was told business interests would give his son
$100,000 in return for his father's vote. When
he still declined, fellow Republican House members
told him they would make sure Brad Smith never
came to Congress. After Nick Smith voted no and
the bill passed, Duke Cunningham of California
and other Republicans taunted him that his son
was dead meat.
The bill providing prescription drug benefits
under Medicare would have been easily defeated
by Republicans save for the most efficient party
whip operation in congressional history. Although
President Bush had to be awakened to collect the
last two votes, Majority Leader Tom DeLay and
Majority Whip Roy Blunt made it that close. ''DeLay
the Hammer'' on Saturday morning was hammering
Last Friday night, Rep. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania
hosted a dinner at the Hunan restaurant on Capitol
Hill for 30 Republicans opposed to the bill. They
agreed on a scaled-down plan devised by Toomey
and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana. It would cover
only seniors without private prescription drug
insurance, while retaining the bill's authorization
of private health savings accounts. First, they
had to defeat their president and their congressional
They almost did. There were only 210 yes votes
after an hour (long past the usual time for House
roll calls), against 224 no's. A weary George
W. Bush, just returned from Europe, was awakened
at 4 a.m. to make personal calls to House members.
Republicans voting against the bill were told
they were endangering their political futures.
Major contributors warned Rep. Jim DeMint they
would cut off funding for his Senate race in South
Carolina. A Missouri state legislator called Rep.
Todd Akin to threaten a primary challenge against
Intense pressure, including a call from the president,
was put on freshman Rep. Tom Feeney. As speaker
of the Florida House, he was a stalwart for Bush
in his state's 2000 vote recount. He is the Class
of 2002's contact with the House leadership, marking
him as a future party leader. But now, in those
early morning hours, Feeney was told a ''no''
vote would delay his ascent into leadership by
three years -- maybe more.
Feeney held firm against the bill. So did DeMint
and Akin. And so did Nick Smith. A steadfast party
regular, he has pioneered private Social Security
accounts. But he could not swallow the unfunded
liabilities in this Medicare bill. The 69-year-old
former dairy farmer this week was still reeling
from the threat to his son. ''It was absolutely
too personal,'' he told me. Over the telephone
from Michigan on Saturday, Brad Smith urged his
father to vote his conscience.
However, the leadership was picking off Republican
dissenters, including eight of 13 House members
who signed a Sept. 17 letter authored by Toomey
pledging to support only a Medicare bill very
different from the measure on the floor Saturday.
That raised the Republican total to 216, still
two votes short.
The president took to the phone, but at least
two Republicans turned him down. Finally, Bush
talked Reps. Trent Franks of Arizona (a ninth
defector from the Toomey letter) and Butch Otter
of Idaho -- into voting ''yes.'' They were warned
that if this measure failed, the much more liberal
Democratic bill would be brought up and passed.
The conservative Club for Growth's Steve Moore,
writing to the organization's directors and founders,
said defeat of the Medicare bill ''would have
been a shot across the bow at the Republican establishment
that conservatives are sick of the spending splurge
that is going on inside Washington these last
Hammering the conservatives to prevent that may
have been only a short-term triumph.
Posted: November 28, 2003