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Flashback: 'The Night The Clocks & Scoreboard Stood Still'

Six years ago yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a controversial and still-unfunded Medicare prescription-drug bill with an historic and extremely controversial early morning vote. At least three of Missouri's Representatives -- Roy Blunt, Jo Ann Emerson and Todd Akin -- played key roles in the drama.

Bruce Bartlett, a former policy advisor to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, recalled the vote last week in a column about Republicans' deficit hypocrisy:

[W]hen the legislation came up for its final vote on Nov. 22, 2003, it was failing by 216 to 218 when the standard 15-minute time allowed for voting came to an end.

What followed was one of the most extraordinary events in congressional history. The vote was kept open for almost three hours while the House Republican leadership brought massive pressure to bear on the handful of principled Republicans who had the nerve to put country ahead of party. The leadership even froze the C-SPAN cameras so that no one outside the House chamber could see what was going on.

The Hill's Bob Cusack wrote an amazing article about the 'night the clocks and scoreboard stood still" two years after the vote. He recounts:

Lawmakers say it was the most intense environment on the [House] floor in decades...

Never before had a roll call been left open so long. When Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) announced the 15-minute vote (the normal length of time provided for most House votes), at 3 a.m., yawning lawmakers were hoping to be in bed within the hour...

If the Medicare vote were a prizefight, it would have been stopped early on. Democrats were up between 15 to 20 votes in the first 10 minutes. At the 15-minute mark, the tally was 194 for, 209 against.

With most eyes focused on the changing vote count, some Republicans were looking to get out of sight. GOP leaders had set up “door men” around the exits of the floor to make sure that Republican no votes would be around until the end...

Between 3:15 and 3:27 a.m., a handful of reluctant Republicans voted yes, as did some Democrats who had been asked to register their support late. The margin narrowed considerably...

The vote stood at 216-218 at 4 a.m. It would stay that way for the next 111 minutes...

Shortly before 5 a.m., David Hobbs, assistant to the president for legislative affairs, turned to Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) and summed up the dire situation: “We need to wake up the president.”...

Eventually, Speaker Dennis Hastert, Leader Tom Delay and Whip Roy Blunt succeeded in persuading Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), Rep. Butch Otter (R-ID), Rep. David Wu (D-OR) and a few others to change their votes. At 5:53 a.m., the gavel came down on a 220-215 vote. Todd Akin and Jo Ann Emerson opposed the measure, as did Democratic Reps. William Lacy Clay, Dick Gephardt, Karen McCarthy and Ike Skelton.

Roy Blunt was a key leader of the Republicans' arm-twisting/ intimidation/ whip effort.  Here's what The Washington Post wrote the day after the infamous vote:

The problem, Blunt said, was that "17 of our members voted no almost immediately, and we didn't get our first Democratic vote until the 15 minutes were almost up." As a result, when the nominal time expired, the measure was trailing by 15 votes -- with 24 Republican defectors and only seven Democratic crossovers. Another 30 members, most of them Democrats, had not voted.

At that point, Hastert, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Blunt swung into action, stressing to Republicans the importance of the issue to the party and the president. The margin of defeat narrowed steadily. By 4 a.m., it stood at 216 to 218...

Reps. Todd Akin and Jo Ann Emerson were key targets of Hastert, Delay and Blunt.  Akin received personal pleas from President Bush, but refused to support the bill; Akin called it a "a vote of conscience."

Bush was on the phone aboard Air Force One on the way back, still scrambling for votes. But he wasn’t having much success. He failed to persuade at least five GOP members who had voted for an earlier version of the bill to back the measure headed to the floor.

One of them was Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), a staunch conservative who was elected along with the president in 2000. Akin explained his concerns to Bush about the bill’s cost, adding: “I’m sorry, Mr. President. It’s a vote of conscience.”

A testy Bush shot back: “Are you saying I don’t have a conscience?”

Bush and Akin would talk again 12 hours later...

Hastert, DeLay and Thomas looked grim some 90 minutes into the vote. They were used to winning, and the possibility of an embarrassing loss was setting in. Democrats, meanwhile, tried to hide their glee, not wanting to provide fodder for a changed vote.

As lawmakers and aides continued to lobby Smith, Hastert sought out Akin.

Akin recounted that the Speaker, “with almost tears in his eyes, said, ‘Todd, I need your vote.’”

“Denny is like a brother to me,” Akin said, “but I had to tell him no.”...

A cell phone was soon passed around with the president on the other end. Bush talked to several members, including Chabot and Akin. Both stood their ground.

Meanwhile, Jo Ann Emerson had voted against the bill, and Roy Blunt wanted to make a deal.  More Cusack:

Blunt had struck a deal with Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) on a previous Medicare drug vote that summer and figured he could do so again — if only he could find her.

A frustrated Blunt, unable to reach Emerson on her cell phone, awoke her husband at a quarter till five in the morning. Emerson, however, wasn’t at home. She was hiding on the Democratic side of the floor, crouching down to avoid eye contact with the Republican search team.

This vote is important in our current context for a few reasons. First, it's important to remember what the days of Hastert/DeLay/Blunt rule were like in the U.S. House. They were ugly. Second, it's relevant to the 2009 discussion of deficit spending and fiscal responsibility in health care policy.  Back to the Bruce Bartlett column:

Just to be clear, the Medicare drug benefit [passed in 2003] was a pure giveaway with a gross cost greater than either the House or Senate health reform bills how being considered. Together the new bills would cost roughly $900 billion over the next 10 years, while Medicare Part D will cost $1 trillion.

Moreover, there is a critical distinction--the drug benefit had no dedicated financing, no offsets and no revenue-raisers; 100% of the cost simply added to the federal budget deficit, whereas the health reform measures now being debated will be paid for with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, adding nothing to the deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office...

It astonishes me that a party enacting anything like the drug benefit would have the chutzpah to view itself as fiscally responsible in any sense of the term. As far as I am concerned, any Republican who voted for the Medicare drug benefit has no right to criticize anything the Democrats have done in terms of adding to the national debt. Space prohibits listing all their names, but the final Senate vote can be found here and the House vote here.

It's hard to argue with Bartlett on this point.

To his credit, Blunt is fairly honest about the fiscal irresponsibility of the prescription benefit.  But incredibly, he cited his party's failure to fund the program as a key reason why we shouldn't pass any sort of health care reform this year. Speaking with KY3's Dave Catanese about the program in August:

BLUNT: I'm certainly of the belief that the government should first do what it said it was gonna do before taking on a new obligation.

CATANESE: You mean the prescription drug benefit?

BLUNT: Well, you know, that was a very costly addition to Medicare. Now the way we did it it turned about to be 40% cheaper than anyboy estimated because we created a competitive marketplace. But that was, that's a big item.

CATANSE: But it wasn't paid for.

BLUNT: It was not. It was not. [chuckle] It was a $400 billion addition to Medicare.

Watch the interview here.

It was an ugly night in November 2003, but one that should not be forgotten. Especially when Republicans like Blunt -- and their supporters -- scream about the costs of health care bills that are actually financed, and actually reduce the deficit.

Image credit: Seattle Times



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