Bill Frenzel's last dramatic act in the House of Representatives was, appropriately, to tell it like it was.
The respected Minnesota Republican, at 62 the senior angry man of the House GOP, gave his colleagues in the minority an ice-cold dose of reality in the closing hours of the 101st Congress -- the kind generals give to defeated troops or coaches to losing teams or doctors to struggling patients when the game is up and all that remains is to minimize misery.
"If this bill does not pass tonight," he said of the deficit-reduction package detested by most Republicans, "we'll get a worse result. . . . We've run out of separate alleys and avenues down which we can travel to avoid making the final decision."
He was talking not just about the deficit package, but about what 20 years as a Republican in the House had taught him. He was saying that it had made him not only a creature of the institution but also a prisoner of it. As frustrated as he was by that status, he also was calling on his angry, younger colleagues -- followers of Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (Ga.) -- to stop behaving as if it wasn't true.
It was parting advice from an older generation of angry House Republicans to a newer one. As everyone knew, Frenzel was calling it quits after this, retiring from his legendary, 80-hour weeks, abandoning his rare mastery of the institution's procedural mechanics, which he recognized early as a back door to power, walking away from years of rage at the indignity of being in the House minority.
So angry had Frenzel become in recent years that he, a political moderate admired by leaders of both parties, had nominated Gingrich, the New Right insurrectionist, as party whip two years ago. "We needed to take some risks," Frenzel said then.
And yet, at the same time, he was ascending to the senior Republican chair on the House Budget Committee, publicly expressing hope for a bipartisan compromise to turn back the deficit.
Those two impulses -- one embracing Gingrich, one embracing compromise -- ultimately clashed, making Frenzel a prisoner rather than a leader of the deficit-reduction negotiations. He recounted how it happened in an interview in his office this week.
As the top House Republican spokesman on the budget, he said he went into the deficit summit talks called by President Bush, prepared to defer to the wishes of the president, without whom, he observed, Republican House members wouldn't have been at the table.
"We were a little better than potted palms, but from my perspective we knew we were not leaders," he said.
Knowing this was his last shot at a long-sought target -- gaining control of the deficit -- he found the summer excruciating, he said, as the two sides made little progress. Then last month, after Congress killed the summit's first $500 billion deficit-reduction package and negotiators were piecing together a substitute, Frenzel thought he saw an opening to get more spending cuts and fewer tax increases. Instead, the moment turned into what he called "the nadir of my life."
Led by Gingrich, a majority of House Republicans were refusing to negotiate, preferring to go back to the drawing board to try to avoid tax increases altogether. With the GOP caucus hopelessly divided, Frenzel, the lone House Republican on the House-Senate conference committee on the budget, couldn't take his seat because, he said, "I didn't represent anything."
"They may have been right," Frenzel said of Gingrich and his troops, "but they've never had the responsibility of running the government. What they were offered here was a small share and they turned it down. That little act of insurrection cost us about $20 billion in spending cuts. It is what happens when you decide to be pure rather than practical."
In the end, Frenzel rejoined the negotiations, winning from them a rigid enforcement mechanism designed to keep future spending within limits set out in the package -- the old procedural mechanic at work.
As he called on his colleagues to support the final package as their only hope to harness the deficit, he wore a button that said "Free the 101st Congress." When it was over, Bill Frenzel was indeed free at last.
"I do not delude myself that it was some great monument to what I produced," he said of the budget package. "But it was a landmark change in direction and I was glad to have been part of it."
On the subject of Gingrich, the man who helped make Frenzel a prisoner in what might have been his crowning hour, he seemed also at peace. He said, in fact, that he would support the fiery Georgian if he had it to do over again.
"I would just hope," said the man who knows his place, "that next time around, if there is a close call as between the republic and the Republicans, that he makes it differently."