I remember very little about that night: Nature protects people who are in bad accidents and who cast the 218th—which is to say, deciding—vote on a controversial bill, as I did 15 years ago.
I was excoriated and lionized, I was either a villain or a heroine, and I was frankly uncomfortable with both extremes. I am constantly reminded of that vote 15 years ago. People still talk about it. I'm rarely introduced to a crowd without a sentence about the vote. It never entered my mind that I was writing the first paragraph of my obit.
I relive that night in slow motion every time another extremely controversial bill comes up for a vote, like this week when the House voted down the proposed bailout package.
It was Thursday, Aug. 5, 1993, and the legislation was President Clinton's budget package. We Democrats all knew this piece had to pass. We knew Clinton would be a lame duck without it, that we were not going to get anything different or better. We also knew that because the bill had been painted as a tax increase, not a deficit reduction bill, it was wildly unpopular. (The tax increase was on the top 1.2 percent of the population, and they all seemed to live in my district!) The leader of the Republicans, Rep Bob Michel of Illinois, said on the floor that day that the bill had to pass, but we had not one Republican vote.
I had not been pressured all day. The leadership and White House knew how vulnerable my seat was: I was a freshman legislator in the most Republican district represented by a Democrat in the Congress. I won with 50.2 percent of the vote in a district with such a strong history of GOP support that on election night I only had a concession speech prepared. (The last Democrat to be elected from the district won his race in 1916, and he served only one term.)
Sometime after 9 p.m. on the night of the Clinton budget vote, I walked over to the Capitol to cast my vote. I was a "no": I did not think the bill went far enough on dealing with entitlements (it hardly addressed them), and I thought the spending cuts were not deep enough. And the calls into my office had been overwhelmingly against the bill (though, of course, the people who are never satisfied are the ones who actually call in). When votes like this are taken, it's "triage" for the leadership—all they care about that night is getting the darn thing passed. They don't care (or they can't) how much blood is spilled.
When I got to the House chamber, the Republicans were high-fiving, congratulating themselves on the fact that the votes were not there to pass the bill. Some Democrats were talking about switching their votes. I was told the president was on the phone. There was a line set up in an anteroom off the floor, and I took the call there. He basically said, "What would it take?" I told him what my reservations were. We needed more cuts, and we had to address entitlements in some meaningful way. We agreed to try to find more cuts—we ended up finding $100 billion additional cuts, though we weren't able to get them passed. And we held an entitlements conference in my district. And, I told him, I would only be his last vote—only if he really need me to get the bill passed. (There had been only two votes like that in history: the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the vote on the draft.)
I also let him know that casting the vote would likely cost the party my seat.
I'd actually like to clear the record here: All the accounts that I've read about this vote say that during the campaign I had promised not to raise taxes. I did not. As a matter of fact, I always said when asked that I would not be a "read-my-lips candidate" because I had no idea what I would be facing with regard to budgets when I got down to Washington. I said I would try to hold the line on taxes but would absolutely not give those kinds of promises.
No one walked me down the aisle to the voting machine (that's the picture that has been painted). I was not a deer in the headlights (I am somewhat ex ophthalmic). I knew what I was doing.
I found myself in the well of the House, thinking There are not a lot of profiles in courage in this place. I was surprised by the number of committee chairs and members who had safe seats who were not stepping up to the plate.
There were three of us in the end, two of whom would have to cast the politically perilous "yes" votes: Ray Thornton, who represented President Clinton's home district; Pat Williams, a Democrat from Montana; and me. Ray said he couldn't vote for a 4.3-cent-a-gallon gas tax. Pat cast his vote, then I put my green voting card into the machine. The plan passed by my vote.