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
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
“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
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
“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