The meeting was extraordinary. Some called it stormy, others "brutal." It was an encounter Thursday in the Capitol Hill working office of House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who could have said "I told you so" to the outraged participants but forbore to do so.
The topic at hand was the conduct of Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in the House-Senate conference on the 1986 defense authorization bill.
Although the House voted in July, by a wide margin, to hold Pentagon spending to $292 billion and to impose strict rules on procurement, the House conferees had collapsed on everything: added $10 billion to the total, sabotaged the reforms.
Democrats, and not just the liberals, were furious -- furious with Aspin for caving in to the Senate, furious with themselves for having supported him for chairman -- he had promised to kill the MX missile and then led the fight for 10 more. They were crimson with embarrassment for letting the issue of Pentagon extravagance slip through their fingers, and stung by the gibes of constituents who twitted them about wimpiness in the crunch.
Reps. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and George Miller (D-Calif.) went to the speaker demanding corrective action. O'Neill suggested that they invite some confederates to a showdown with the errant chairman. The organizers took care to include two indignant Texas conservatives, Reps. Charles W. Stenholm and Marvin Leath.
The speaker, who had opposed Aspin for Armed Services chairman and has probably never forgotten for a day that Aspin once vowed to go after his job, greeted his callers in sardonic style.
"I understand you have a problem with your candidate," he said.
When Aspin arrived, he said, "These are your people. What do you have to say to them?"
What they had to say to him made the ensuing hour memorable. Aspin was accused of lying, selling out, trying to be all things to all men. Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.), "Hurricane Marty" to his colleagues, shouted at Aspin: "Some time, Les, you have to take a stand."
The speaker, whose judgment was being so dramatically ratified, intervened only when the room began to boil with the intensity of Mount St. Helens.
Aspin represents the great split in the party about the Pentagon budget. He preaches that Democrats must vote big bucks for weapons, no matter how questionable, to erase the image of a party "soft on defense."
At a recent Democratic powwow, he bragged about voting for the MX and nerve gas. Disillusioned Democrats saw him using the conference as a way of writing his crass philosophy into law.
Schumer said, "No one in my district is going to believe that when we put $292 billion into the Pentagon, we are for a weak defense."
Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), whose procurement reforms had been gutted, noted that her coauthor, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), was soaring in his home state on the wings of the $7,000 coffee pot and other instances of Pentagon extravagance.
Several remarked bitterly that Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, of all people, had outdone the Congress in defense economy. To Democratic consternation, he had canceled a turkey, the notoriously inept Sgt. York gun. The House had killed some 20 weapons; the conference brought them all back to life.
Stenholm said his people were incensed over $10 billion being tucked back into Defense's well-filled pockets, while $7.9 billion was cut from the lean agriculture bill.
Miller said, "We are just playing catch-up on this issue, just beginning to get to where the country is."
Finally, Aspin, during a pause in the flow of vitriol, confessed that he had "screwed up on the conference."
In spite of the wrath, institutional amenities were observed. The idea of simply rejecting the conference report was seen as an unendurable humiliation for the chairman. Besides, the Senate was warning it would call no further conference and let the whole defense authorization lapse.
An intricate parliamentary compromise was worked out, one that would save face for Aspin and rescue his colleagues from their chagrin.
Yesterday, the Democratic Caucus took several steps to regain custody of the defense-waste issue. The speaker promised a rule that would make it possible for the House, when the conference report came up, to hold one vote setting the limit at $292 billion and another restoring the procurement reforms.
Aspin, whose name was not mentioned during the deliberations in the House chamber, had, for once, nothing to say.