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‘Me Too, Pal,’ says Bush, Hanging Up
Published on Wednesday, December 3, 2003 by The Hill (Washington, DC)
‘Me Too, Pal,’ says Bush, Hanging Up
by Jonathan E. Kaplan
 

Conservative Republican frustration over the failure of the Bush administration and the House Republican leadership to restrain federal spending has boiled over in recent days, producing a rare confrontation between GOP lawmakers and party leaders.

The internal conflict, fueled largely by recent passage of the $78 billion Iraq reconstruction effort and the $400 billion prescription-drug benefit for senior citizens that squeaked through the House on Nov. 22, came to a head last week when President Bush abruptly terminated a phone conversation with a Florida Republican who refused his plea to vote for the landmark bill.

Well-placed sources said Bush hung up on freshman Rep. Tom Feeney after Feeney said he couldn’t support the Medicare bill. The House passed it by only two votes after Hastert kept the roll-call vote open for an unprecedented stretch of nearly three hours in the middle of the night.

Feeney, a former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives whom many see as a rising star in the party, reportedly told Bush: “I came here to cut entitlements, not grow them.”

Sources said Bush shot back, “Me too, pal,” and hung up the phone.

At the same time, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) castigated former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) after he wrote an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal opposing the bill. Armey wrote that he opposed the bill even though he had voted for two similar bills as a member of Congress.

House leadership aides said Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) felt blindsided by Armey’s op-ed, which came at a time when they were trying desperately to round up the necessary votes.

“The Speaker is very disappointed about the article, especially because Mr. Armey voted for prescription-drugs bills that had even less reform than the conference report did when he was a member,” Hastert spokesman John Feehery told The Hill on Monday.

But Armey, who said he called Hastert to sort out their differences, put a different spin on the exchange.

“[Hastert] understood where I was coming from and that a lot of people felt the way I did,” Armey told The Hill. “I made the night longer than it ought to have been. One of things we do in our party is appreciate freedom of expression.”

He added: “Everybody in the heat of the deal thinks things like that are bigger than life, but things cool down.”

Armey, now a lobbyist at the Piper Rudnick law firm, said he was not worried that his access to the GOP leadership would be limited or that Hastert and others would penalize the clients whom he advises.

House aides contrasted Armey with former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who was praised by Republicans for his support of the Medicare bill the week of the vote.

Gingrich had fallen out of favor with the White House and many Republicans earlier this year when he attacked Secretary of State Colin Powell’s management of the State Department.

A GOP aide said that, had lawmakers voted after Gingrich’s rousing speech to the GOP conference, the vote would not have lasted three hours. Gingrich also wrote a positive editorial in The Wall Street Journal.

Republican aides said conservatives who voted against the bill, including Reps. Mike Pence (Ind.), John Culberson (Texas), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Roscoe Bartlett (Md.) and Jim Ryun (Kan.), would suffer for their votes against the Medicare bill.

Leadership aides said those members “can expect to remain on the back bench” in the months ahead.

“Health savings accounts are the most dramatic reform of health care in 30 years,” Feehery said. “Conservatives said they all loved it, but once in the bill they forgot about it.”

The fallout over the conservative resistance included some lawmakers who are considered rising stars in the party, as well as a major conservative think tank that aided House Democrats in nearly derailing Bush’s top domestic initiative.

Although the House GOP assembled a 400-member coalition in support of the bill, the Heritage Foundation opposed the bill and even held a briefing for members in the Dirksen Building the day before the vote.

Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who voted against the bill when the Senate passed it by a 54-44 vote, allowed Heritage to use the room the day before the vote. That decision was made at a very low level in the office, according to Rachel Oliphant, Nickles’ press secretary.

“So far, we’ve not seen any penalties coming our way,” said Stuart Butler, vice president for economic and domestic policy at Heritage. “[We have] quite a long history of taking issue with the Republican leadership and White House.”

Butler said that Heritage had vigorously attacked Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush for raising taxes in 1982 and 1990, respectively.

© 2003 The Hill

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