If the recent passage of the $395-billion Medicare prescription-drug bill teaches us anything, it is that just electing more Republicans to the House and Senate accomplishes very little.  We have a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and a Republican President.  Yet over 200 House Republicans voted for the biggest expansion of the Great Society welfare state in nearly four decades.  Only 25 voted against it.  In the Senate, only 9 out of 51 Republicans voted “no.”  On December 8, President Bush signed the bill and is now trumpeting it as a great accomplishment.  We have plenty of Republicans in Washington, but few who actually believe in smaller government.

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, November 22, 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 it is a giant leap toward Hillary-style health-care.  We released a poll showing that most seniors are satisfied with their existing prescription-drug insurance coverage and that they oppose the bill when they learn of the details.  We called all of the Club members in the House to remind them of our opposition and to urge them to hold firm.

Two lieutenants quickly emerged to lead the conservative revolt: Pat Toomey and Mike Pence.  Both had been elected with Club support.  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 one-trillion-dollar entitlement program that they would have to pay for some day.  Sitting in the Oval Office, he told President 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 either solid “no” votes or leaning that way.  One member who was a hard “no” from the very beginning was Tom Feeney of Florida.  Tom is the freshman-class representative to the House leadership, a position that goes to the newcomer whom the Speaker of the House wants to groom for a leadership position.  Feeney was told that his dissent would set him back three years in his attempt to climb the House ladder.  He would be relegated to the back bench.  The leadership 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 of the welfare state.  He told 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, to encourage them to “stick together.”  Toomey and Pence had devised a plan to vote down the Medicare bill, then come back to the President with a scaled-back plan that would cover only those seniors who do not have existing prescription-drug insurance and would retain the one redeeming feature of the bill, health savings accounts.  This was exactly what the Club and the Wall Street Journal had urged as a sensible alternative, costing only one third of what the conference-report cost.  The plan was for these conservatives to go to the floor and to 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 ten 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 had passed, the bill was losing by 15 votes.  After an hour, it appeared that the House had rejected the bill, as 218 representatives, a majority, had voted against it.

That is when the intense lobbying began.  Congressmen were promised pork-barrel projects and threatened with primary challengers in the upcoming election.  The President, who had just returned from England, called legislators at 5:00 A.M. to round up a few more votes.

The previous day, Todd Akin of Missouri had received a call from a state legislator, 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, 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.  He held firm, however.

Nothing, though, compares to the disgusting behavior of the Republican leadership toward Michigan’s Nick Smith.  Smith is retiring from the House, and his son, Brad, is running in a crowded field to succeed him.  The leadership first offered Smith unbelievable enticements to change his vote.  They said that the leadership would take the unusual step of endorsing his son Brad in the tight primary race.  Then, they promised to raise $100,000 for Brad if Smith voted “yes.”  He still said no.  Then, several Republican leaders threatened that, if he did not 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 not to worry about the House race.  Smith stuck to his guns.  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.”

Another hero was Scott Garrett, who was told by the Republican leadership that he was committing political suicide by voting “no.”  When I asked him a few hours before the vote what he was going to do, however, he said, “I am for freedom.”  He was the only House Republican from the Northeast to vote “no.”

By 5:00 A.M., many members were starting to suffer from sleep deprivation.  Incredibly, the bill was going down to defeat, still stuck at 216-218.  The vote count on the board had not moved in nearly an hour.  According to the Washington Post, on several occasions, House Majority Leader Tom Delay was ready to throw in the towel.  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 did not change their votes, the President would immediately instruct the House leadership to pass the Democratic version of the bill.  They were told that they were the only ones preventing passage of an even worse Medicare drug bill.  I am convinced that the White House was bluffing and that this was simply another scheme to peel off votes.  We will never know, however, because Franks and Otter changed their votes, and the bill passed 220-215, as two other lawmakers decided to be on the prevailing side.

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

If we could have won this vote against the most powerful whip operation in the history of the House and a popular Republican President, it would have proved to the Republican establishment that conservatives are sick of the spending splurge that is going on in Washington.  The budget has grown by 27 percent in two years, a faster rate of growth than at anytime since Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency.  Republican leaders in the White House and Congress seem entirely unconcerned about the orgy of spending and debt.

This was a hollow victory for the Republican Party bosses, and it could blow up in the Republicans’ faces when seniors see the details of the bill.  Worse, it threatens to demoralize fiscal conservatives who are infuriated by the GOP’s massive expansion of government.

Today, we have two big-government parties in Washington.  And we only have about two-dozen Republicans in the House and a handful in the Senate who are trying to pull the Republicans in an anti-big-government direction.  We intend to make it a top priority of the Club to protect the heroes who voted against this bill from the retribution of the Republican Party.  If party leaders run primary challengers against these principled congressmen, we will do everything we can to crush the challenge and to protect those true fiscal conservatives who voted for principle over politics during the wee hours of that Saturday morning.