There were six of them, Democratic congressmen from Texas, sitting over dinner Wednesday with home-state utility executives at the exclusive University Club, when the phone statred ringing.
It was Ronald Reagan calling.
One by one, five of the six were summoned to the phone as the president appealed for their help on yesterday's cruical procedural vote on his proposals for cutting the budgets.
Reagan didn't even bother with the sixth Texan, Rep. Martin Frost, an unrelenting loyalist who' opposed the president's one-shot approach to the budget. It turned out Reagan didn't need him.
The president's eleventh-hour effort, on top of others he and White House aides made in recent days, apparently had its intended effect. The five Texas joined 24 other Democrats (including four more Texans) and voted yesterday to give Reagan effective control of the nominally Democratic House of Representatives, the Democrats' last bastion in the federal government.
"At least three of them -- Ralph Hall, Charles Wilson and Jack Hightower -- were on the fence until they heard from the president, even though they voted with him on the budget resolution in May," Frost reported.
Texas was all Reagan needed. A shift of four votes would have given the Democrats victory, but in this year of presidential popularity and budget sensitivity it was not to be.
It will not be remembered as one of the House's finer parliamentary hours, but power changed hands clearly and convincingly as the Democrats lost, 217 to 210, in their effort to force embarrassing roll-call votes on proposed cuts in popular social programs.
As the electronic scoreborad high on the House wall recorded their defeat, the Democrats were in hangdog disaray, outflanked at every parliamentary turn and for now reconciled to the role of loyal but embittered opposition.
Rules Committee Chairman Richard Boiling (D-Mo.), after a soaring appeal for courage and independence, dimissed the rout succinctly. "These guys can't get out of their jackboots," he said.
"There has been a terrible distortion of the legislative process" said Jonathan B. Bingham (D-N.Y). "We have to find some way to not let this happen again. We have voted them a complete blank check and I find that almost intolerable."
"It is very discouraging," said Rober W. Kastenmeire (D-Wis.), another journeyman liberal. "The majority party has lost control and this changes the balance of power on everything that is consequential. We are going back into that Dixiecrat-Republican situation we had years ago."
Bill Alexander (D-Ark.) called yesterday's vote "a vote "a historic occasion. They are getting all they asked for . . . I feel it is important for Congress to set the priorities, but now the president has set the priorities for the First District of Arkansas."
Less philosophical about it all was Mickey Leland, a Houston Democrat, who accused his Texas Democratic brethren who supported Reagan of treachery, mendacity and cowardice.
"They are traitors to the Democratic Party and they should be stripped of their rights and privileges," Leland said. "I pleaded with them before this vote. I worked hard. Now, I can expect anything out of these guys. What if they consprire now to elect a Republican speaker?"
Republicans obviously have such notions, but the issue yesterday -- opening the budget package to roll call votes -- produced enough emotion and tension for the time being.
The press gallery had standing room only. Public galleries were full. At least two former members, Democrats Lloyd Meeds of Washington and Robert Giaimo of Connecticut, were on the floor for the occasion.
For a change, members attended the debate in droves. There was applause after some of the short pro and con speeches, cackling and heckling from the back seats and the air of a genuinely important occasion.
The party lines were predictable. Republicans charged that the Democratic plan thwarted Reagan's mandate to control government spending. Democrats charged that the GOP was marching off in lockstep, fearful of going on record against specific social programs, ready to make the Capitol a White House annex.
The Republican righteousness was more than Robert Garica, a Democrat from the South Bronx, could bear. "you don't speak for all Americans," he lectured the GOP side. "I look at this side and I don't see black face, only one Hispanic . . . you don't speak for all."
Before the vote, more than three dozen legislators took the well of the House for one-minute perorations, but throughout, the long presidential shadow inched across toward the Democratic side of the floor.
At one point Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) asked how many more members wanted to speak. Hands popped up. "The president will have time to make some more phone calls," O'Neill said from the chair.
Whereup, John H. Rousselot R-Calif.) grasped for recognition, which O'Neill gave him. "I just wanted to tell you the president's on the phone," he said, with a puckish grin on his face.
Nobody needed to be reminded.