The Out-of-Towners

Attentive readers of the daily press will know by now that some Republican senators – Phil Gramm of Texas, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, John McCain of Arizona – resisted the $20 billion aid package to New York that Congress passed after the World Trade Center tragedy. What they will not know, however, is just how strenuously Gramm and Nickles objected to the aid and how hard these wonderful Americans from the heartland worked to thwart it.

The narrative begins the day after the attack, Wednesday, when Senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton met with Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani, urging them to assess the scope of the damage and agree to a dollar amount they could then take to Capitol Hill. The $20 billion fig-ure was agreed upon, and Schumer and Clinton made their way back to Washington.

The next part of the story has been widely retailed. Thursday afternoon, Schumer and Clinton met with President Bush in the Oval Office. They described the scale of the carnage, and Schumer pressed the case that New York needed a cash infusion of perhaps staggering proportions. “How much?” Schumer says the president asked. “Twenty billion,” came the reply. “You’ve got it,” Bush said.

What unfolded during the evening hours that Thursday, according to four sources who followed the events closely, provides for an eye-popping lesson both in the ways of Capitol Hill and in the reality behind all the lovely rhetoric about unity.

The $20 billion was to be delivered to New York through an emergency supplemental-appropriations measure. The Office of Management and Budget drafted the language, calling for a total appropriation of $40 billion, half for military preparedness, national security, and transportation security, and half for “disaster-recovery activities and assistance” in New York. (Technically, this half was earmarked for New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, the latter two having also been attacked, though the bulk of the money was meant for to New York.)

That’s how things stood at eight o’clock. Around this time, an aide to Hillary Clinton left the office and went to the Senate floor, where Clinton was checking on the status of the bill. So, the aide said, I guess everything looks pretty good. “Well, no,” Clinton said. “It’s falling apart. We’ve got to go talk to Daschle right now.”

What had happened, as Clinton and Schumer both were now learning, was that a second version of the bill had mysteriously emerged from OMB. This language called for only $20 billion, not $40 billion. It also noted that, after the first $20 billion was spent, an additional $20 billion could be allocated “in a subsequent Act of Congress attendant to a specific emergency request proposed by the President.” In other words, weeks or months later, when New York’s grief had left the front pages. In other words, maybe some money, but nothing close to $20 billion.

Where did this mystery language come from? My sources didn’t know for sure, but as we shall see, a meeting that took place in House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s office later that night provides a likely suspect list of two. “It’s clear to me,” says Congressman Jerry Nadler, “that Gramm and Nickles tried to take out the earmark.”

Schumer and Clinton charged up to majority Leader Tom Daschle’s office, where they met with Daschle, Majority Whip Harry Reid of Nevada, and Robert Byrd of West Virginia. They were trying to figure out how to respond when, one source says, “somebody came in and said, ‘Gramm and Nickles are down in the speaker’s office right now.’ Byrd said, ‘Let’s go.’ “

Schumer and Clinton decided their presence in the speaker’s office might be counterproductive. They went instead to the Senate Democratic cloakroom, where they furiously made calls. Schumer called Andrew Card, the president’s chief of staff – a call, as described by my sources, that Card will not soon forget. Clinton called around to members of the New York House delegation, Democrat and Republican, to enroll them in the fight. Nadler and Nita Lowey were particularly involved, as were upstate Republicans James Walsh and John Sweeney, who has especially close ties to the White House.

The New Yorkers converged outside Hastert’s office. Inside were the Speaker, Byrd, Daschle, Dick Gephardt, and House Appropriations Committee leaders Bill Young and David Obey. And Phil Gramm and Don Nickles, who have nothing to do with appropriations but who had barged their way in just to argue against the bill. McCain had raised objections earlier, on the confusing – not to say offensive – grounds that the money somehow constituted pork, but “he made his peace with it and left,” one source says. Of the other two, says the source, “Gramm just doesn’t want to spend any money. And Nickles … he’s just anti-New York. He was saying that Oklahoma City didn’t get anything like this amount after the bombing there.”

As the night pressed on, the good guys circled the wagons. Gramm and Nickles surrendered, and even voted for the package in the end. But the story, besides telling us that our senators earned their paychecks, leaves at least two distinct foul odors hanging in the air. There is, first, the rank indecency of the two men’s objections. Granted, $20 billion is a lot of money, and New York must spend it wisely. But to try to block this money under these circumstances, forcing the city to rattle the cup for some much smaller amount at some undetermined point in the future, leaves one speechless. Gramm is retiring, but when Nickles runs again, I hope the police officers and firefighters of his state ask him why he deemed the widows and children of more than 350 heroic cops and firefighters unworthy of federal support.

And second, the senators’ shenanigans reveal the hypocrisy of those who are given to thinking of New York as anti-American – a sentiment not, alas, limited to right-wing senators. Andrew Sullivan, in an obscene epistolary excretion that appeared in the Times of London, wrote adoringly of the humble red states that are behind the president, as opposed to the “decadent” blue states that will, in the coming months, constitute a veritable “fifth column” against America. Sullivan provides here the intellectual (so to speak) groundwork upon which the likes of Gramm and Nickles can justify themselves: An attack on the blue zone is somehow not really an attack on America. This may not make them fifth columnists, but it sure doesn’t make them good Americans.


The Out-of-Towners