WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush predicted to aides late last Wednesday afternoon that he would need only five minutes to close the deal with Rep. Charlie Norwood to seize control of HMO reform. It took three times that long, but seldom have 15 minutes been better spent by a president.
In the previous Congress, Georgia conservative Norwood led 67 other Republicans in support of President Bill Clinton's "patients' bill of rights." All but six were back in the GOP fold for Thursday night's vote. Such Republican stalwarts as Henry Hyde (Ill.), Bob Barr (Ga.), Mac Thornberry (Texas) and Curt Weldon (Pa.), who voted with the Democrats in 1999, backed the Bush-Norwood measure. So did moderate Republicans like Mike Castle (Del.) and Jack Quinn (N.Y.).
A mass return to party regularity on any major piece of legislation would be significant, but President Bush's victory last week was transcendent. It rescued him from the necessity to veto a bill purporting to remedy something people really care about. The rescue, furthermore, was achieved with tenacity and adroitness not previously seen in the new president's tenure.
Had he not reached agreement with Norwood, the president would have faced an unpleasant prospect. The bill set to be passed by the House had become a cash cow for the Democratic Party's cherished trial lawyers. To preserve his own credibility, Bush would have had to veto a bill seen by voters as punishing the evil HMOs.
Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the 68 defectors in 1999, appreciates the scope of Bush's victory. A plaintiff's lawyer himself, Graham still differs from the White House about how hard it ought to be to sue a HMO and wants his friend and ally, Sen. John McCain, to change this in the Senate-House conference.
Nevertheless, Bush's worst-case scenario now is no bill at all, with Democrats taking the blame. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, rising suddenly from millionaire trial lawyer to a leading Democratic presidential prospect for 2004, had been poised to boast of his bill vetoed by Bush and perhaps passed into law overriding the veto. Now Edwards has neither enacted legislation nor has the protective coloration of a conservative Georgia Republican as a co-sponsor.
This overnight transformation in the political climate helps explain the heightened rhetoric by anguished Democrats. They turned on Charlie Norwood after lionizing him for the past five years. Rep. Pete Stark of California, who has mastered the art of congressional invective since arriving on Capitol Hill in 1973, violated the rules of floor debate by declaring: "I'm sorry that Congressman Norwood sold out for a brief display at the Rose Garden."
An agitated Democratic Rep. Gerald Kleczka of Wisconsin told the House: "The operatives at the White House came here and were looking for someone to do the poison pill ... They looked at the gentleman from Iowa (Republican Rep. Greg Ganske), and did not get too far there. Then ... they found the weakest link (Norwood)."
Indeed, Norwood and Ganske responded quite differently to appeals from the White House. Norwood, a dentist from Evans, Ga., was willing to negotiate with the president to avoid a veto that would benefit Democrats but not doctors, patients or even trial lawyers. Ganske, a surgeon from Des Moines, would not compromise.
Consequently, Ganske replaced Norwood as the Democrats' favorite Republican. He also found himself at the receiving end of tough language from the White House, particularly when he told Republican colleagues that Bush's veto threats were a bluff. Ganske was informed he might not expect Vice President Dick Cheney to campaign in Iowa for the congressman's anticipated race next year against Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. In other words, disloyalty carries consequences.
That's a tough message, but toughness typified Bush in the last week before the August recess. The energy bill passed the House after White House aide Mary Matalin shepherded Teamsters President James P. Hoffa around congressional offices. Bush got an emergency farm bill costing $5.5 billion, as he desired, instead of a Senate committee's $7.5 billion when the House adjourned, leaving Democrats with a Hobson's choice -- that bill or no bill. The president showed he can prevail in an evenly divided Congress.