When aides wheeled Sen. Pete Wilson into the Senate chamber early yesterday to cast a crucial vote on a compromise budget plan, the scene was reminiscent of another important one-vote decision in that chamber almost exactly 117 years ago.
Wilson, a first-term California Republican, was taken by ambulance from Bethesda Naval Medical Center yesterday just after midnight when Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) discovered he would need every vote he could get to pass the GOP-backed deficit-reduction measure.
The two senators who did not vote also had been hospitalized, Sen. John P. East (R-N.C.) for a severe thyroid problem and Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) for gallbladder surgery.
When Dole called, Wilson, who underwent an emergency appendectomy on Wednesday, overrode his doctor's advice; intravenous tubes still in his arm, Wilson was taken to the Capitol, where his vote led to a 49-to-49 tie that Vice President Bush broke.
Senators and House members have come from sickbeds to vote in the past. But the appropriate model for Wilson could have been Sen. James Wilson Grimes (R-Iowa), who was too ill to walk on May 26, 1868 but, according to the Senate library, found a way to cast his vote against conviction in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.
A well-known lithograph shows Grimes being carried in a chair into the Senate chamber. His vote, when added to those of 18 other senators, prevented by one vote the first impeachment conviction of a president.
A spokesman for Wilson said yesterday that the senator offered to go to the Capitol to vote on the deficit-reduction plan.
Wearing a brown bathrobe and with a tan blanket on his lap, Wilson was wheeled into the Senate about 1:30 a.m. yesterday and jokingly asked, "What's the question?" before voting for the GOP compromise, setting up the tie.
After the vote, Wilson told reporters he had left his hospital bed "because this may be the most important vote of my career."
A spokesman said Wilson, who was back at the Bethesda facility yesterday, received a call from Air Force One. "Thanks," said the voice on the other end of the line. "You made the difference."