After a day of intense and personal arm-twisting by President Bush and congressional leaders, Reps. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, and Wayne Owens, D-Utah, swallowed hard and voted for the budget compromise they had attacked all week.
Rep. Howard Nielson almost did too, but in the end joined a majority of rank-and-file House members in the early morning hours Friday to reject the package crafted by their leaders. The final vote at 1:20 a.m. EDT was 254-179 against the package."The president called me twice, I talked to three cabinet members during the day and (House Minority Leader) Bob Michel was pleasant with me, which he hadn't been for weeks," Nielson said.
"I finally pledged to President Bush that my vote would not be the one to kill the bill," Nielson said.
So he waited until the 15-minute period to cast votes by electronic device had almost lapsed. Nielson said when it was clear the package would die anyway, he too voted against it.
A majority of both Democrats and Republicans joined in the mutiny against the package - raising the chance again of unpaid leaves for government workers because of automatic Gramm-Rudman law budget cuts, and even of closing down the federal government at midnight Friday because Bush has pledged to veto needed stop-gap spending measures without the budget package attached.
Bush renewed that pledge Friday, calling on Congress to swiftly enact a new budget by midnight or face immediate shutdown of the government.
White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater expressed confidence that the House would be able to reach an agreement.
Bush called an emergency meeting of his Cabinet to discuss the prospects of a shutdown while Democratic and Republican congressional leaders sought to resume negotiations on a new spending package.
"This is a sad night for the House, for our political system and for America," Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said after the defeat. "Our president has asked us to pull together. Too many of my colleagues have given him the back of their hands."
Hansen, Nielson and Owens all said the vote was one of the most difficult they ever faced in Congress. All disliked the package, all wondered if anything better could be crafted and all were pressured by personal calls and visits by leaders.
And just weeks before the election, all said that phone calls from constituents had been running 50-1 against the package from people mainly upset about proposed increases in gasoline taxes and Medicare premiums.
The easy vote to please voters apparently was against the package - which ironically only Nielson chose, and he is not facing election.
Hansen explained his choice to the House, "I admit this deal we are being offered is not what I would have crafted. But when a drowning man is about to go down for the third time, he doesn't care how ugly the life raft is as long as it floats, and friends, the government is floundering in a sea of red ink."
Hansen, whose district contains one of the higher percentages of federal workers in the nation, also said President Bush told him personally that if the package did not pass, "he would have no choice but to allow the government to come to a halt."
Hansen added, "I owe it to my constituents to launch the lifeboat, no matter how leaky it may be."
Owens put an editorial from the Deseret News supporting the budget package into the Congressional Record, then told the House, "I support the compromise because there is no other choice, in my view, at this late date."
He added, "If we close down the government by sequestration (Gramm-Rudman across-the-board cuts), we close down the entire economy and cause widespread pain and distress." He also showed reporters a letter Bush wrote him saying rejection of the package would create a recession.
The decision also was made more difficult politically for Owens because his opponent, Genevieve Atwood, who was in town for a fund-raiser, announced she would have voted against the package "because it is bad for Utah and bad for the nation."
Owens said, "Without exception, every one of my political advisers from pollster and television consultant through campaign staff have urged in the strongest terms against the budget agreement.
"But the public interest is absolutely clear. We must support the resolution to avoid the economic devastation of furloughs and cuts, and we must take this small step toward controlling national spending."
All three Utah members said they hoped some new compromise could be crafted Friday to avoid furloughs and budget cuts - but all said no word was available on what may be proposed.
House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., said he would ask the House to approve a short-term extension of government spending authority and, with it, a brief delay in the $85 billion of arbitrary cuts in many government programs after the midnight deadline. That would require concurrence by the Senate and the president.
However, Fitzwater said that Bush had decided that if Congress sends him such a bill - he would simply ignore it, neither signing it nor vetoing it.
However, that would have the same effect as a veto, Fitzwater said, noting that the president has 10 days to consider whether to veto a measure.
Fitzwater said that budget director Richard Darman, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and chief of staff John Sununu planned to meet with Foley to keep involved in budget negotiations through the day.
"We thought the agreement was the best we could get, but it didn't pass so now we'll have to make some changes and see if it is acceptable," Fitzwater said.
"We never said it would be easy . . . but it's just the first skirmish," he added.
Missed the vote
Rep. George Crockett, D-Mich., who plans to retire this year after a decade in Congress, retired a bit early Thursday and was the only House member to miss the vote on the budget agreement. "It's a little embarrassing," said aide Joan Willoughby. "He didn't intend to miss it." Crockett, 81, went back to his office to take a short nap and slept through the vote. "He has two hearing aids and he didn't hear the bells" announcing the vote, Willoughby said.