After Criticizing Jim Wright in '87, GOP Used His Tactic

In the pre-dawn partisan tumult after the extended Medicare vote, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., took to the microphones to liken the situation to one 16 years before — an instance that remains one of the formative moments of the House's current political dynamic.

On Oct. 29, 1987, Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas (1955-89), used an assortment of parliamentary maneuvers and political payoffs to win initial House passage of what ultimately became a budget reconciliation law (PL 100-203) that mostly raised taxes in an effort to reduce the budget deficit by $40 billion over two years.

The normal 15-minute voting period ended with the bill losing, 205-206. Despite louder and louder shouts from the GOP minority to declare his own defeat, however, Wright stood silently on the dais for several minutes — until the arrival in the chamber of a fellow Texas Democrat, Jim Chapman (1985-97). Chapman strode down the aisle and switched his vote and with it the bill passed, 206-205. (He was rewarded with an Appropriations Committee seat a year later.)

Hoyer recalled for Republicans that Wright's bending of the time limit — which took far less than the almost three-hour extension of the voting early Saturday on the Medicare bill (HR 1) — created "outrage . . . palpable on your side of the aisle."

That is probably an understatement. Many Republicans point to that moment as a catalyst for the more aggressive approach to legislative tactics and partisan fighting that has been a GOP hallmark ever since. The incident cemented the view that Wright was heavy-handed in his treatment of the minority and led Republicans to press the inquiry into Wright's finances that prompted his resignation 19 months later.

That inquiry was spearheaded by Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. (1979-99), who used his success there as a springboard to the leadership — which put him in the position to engineer the Republican takeover that has left the House in GOP hands since 1994.