The check's in the mail!

Rep. Tom DeLay's arm-twisting gives President Bush a narrow victory in the House on a controversial IRS mailer.

Published June 21, 2001 7:15PM (EDT)

The fight in the House of Representatives over an IRS mailing criticized by Democrats as essentially a Bush campaign letter got ugly late Wednesday night. Democrats, with help from a handful of Republicans, nearly passed an amendment stripping money for the controversial letter from the IRS budget, but Republicans eventually prevailed, thanks to a little arm-twisting by Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

Shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday, 11 Republican members of the House joined with Democrats on an amendment to strip the cost of the mailing -- an estimated $30.5 million -- from the IRS budget, and in doing so formed a 218-vote majority. But before the vote was officially gaveled close, Republican House leaders made time stand still -- with the official House floor clock frozen at 0:00 -- while they successfully lobbied six Republicans to change their vote. As House Democrats shouted "Shame!" the vote was finally gaveled down as a defeat for the amendment, 212-216.

One Republican who wouldn't change his vote was Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra. "Sure, the leadership asked me to reconsider my vote. But the idea that we need to send out a letter saying the check is in the mail is the dumbest idea I've heard in a long time," Hoekstra said. "When they saw that this amendment was going to pass or come close to passing, the leadership should have realized that this was a good amendment and gotten the entire caucus to rally behind it. I remember when we used to think $30 million was a lot of money."

The controversial IRS letter credits President Bush by name for the forthcoming rebate check, saying that "the United States Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law" the tax bill, "which provides long-term tax relief for all Americans who pay income taxes ... for years to come." Written in consultation with the White House and the Treasury Department, the letter will be sent to 91 million Americans in July, with the stated claim of helping clear up confusion about the $300-per-person, $600-per-couple tax rebate.

In a Tuesday press conference, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer defended the mailing. "The IRS is sending out the notice as part of their routine communications, properly so," he said. "It's a good way to manage the reaction that the public would give if 100 million unexplained checks simply arrived." Fleischer said the letter was part of the IRS's "much more customer-oriented" approach. "It's part of good government for the agencies to keep in touch with people."

Democrats, however, have denounced the unprecedented mailing as nakedly political. "This letter looks more like it was written for a candidate in a campaign than for a government agency," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said to reporters. Schumer later told CBS, "This letter sounds more like it came from Ed McMahon than President Bush." On Tuesday, Schumer wrote to Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who oversees the IRS, and asked him to stop the letter, saying it "could harm the reputation of the IRS."

The related House amendment, offered by Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., would have redirected the $30.5 million toward the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program. With the support of the 11 Republicans, the amendment reached the critical majority of 218 votes for a brief moment.

Democrats began cheering, yelling out "Regular order!" in the hopes that the congressman presiding over the debate -- Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Neb. -- would gavel the vote to a close, making Obey's victory official. But Bereuter, according to Democrats, seemingly waited for instructions from the Republican leadership, and did not bring down the gavel. Thus, time stood still. And DeLay got to work, lobbying Republicans to change their votes.

"We were all watching Tom DeLay scamper around the floor in his black cowboy boots; it was just classic stuff," says a Democratic congressman on the floor at the time, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., for instance, "was up on the board as a 'yes,'" says the Democratic congressman. "Poor Henry Hyde -- the guy's already prostituted himself for these conservative yahoos so much. Unlike many of the guys in his caucus, Hyde was just sitting there stoically near the center of the aisle. Then DeLay spotted him. He started making his way over to Hyde."

Democrats nearby started shouting at Hyde. "Don't do it, Henry!"

"But it took nothing at all," the Democratic congressman says. DeLay said a few words to Hyde, and he raised his hand and changed his vote to "no." Democrats on the floor shouted, "Shame! Shame!" -- not just at Hyde, but at the entire process. Republicans responded with jeers of their own. "The place was getting ugly," says the congressman.

At a Thursday morning Democratic leadership meeting, Minority Leader Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., read the names of the "Hammerees of the Week," those Republicans who had had their arms twisted by DeLay, nicknamed "The Hammer" for his aggressive whipping style. "Hammerees of the Week" were Republican Reps. Hyde, Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, Howard Coble of North Carolina, Mac Collins of Georgia, Wally Herger of California and Heather Wilson of New Mexico.

"He just hit the wrong button; he meant to vote 'no,'" explained Ed McDonald, chief of staff for Coble. "He mishit the keys when he went to vote on the Obey amendment."

Republican Reps. Hoekstra, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Doug Ose of California and Fred Upton of Michigan had no such problems, and maintained their "yes" votes on the amendment.

In a Thursday interview with Salon, Rep. Jones -- a fiscal conservative elected with the Republican revolution class of '94 -- said that the mailing "was just not a wise expenditure of the taxpayers' money. If taxpayers came down here and saw all the wasteful spending, they would be outraged.

"I just could not justify $30 million to send a note saying, 'Hey, you got a check coming!'" Jones said. "That's a lot of money. There's been enough press; people know they're going to be receiving the check." When presented with the option to have those funds redirected to the war on drugs, Jones said, "For me it was an easy decision."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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