Having just scuttled a highly popular provision aimed at helping thousands of rural households receive local TV broadcasts on their satellite dishes, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) went to the Senate floor late Thursday and cast himself as its strongest advocate.
Under a deal that was days in the making, Gramm agreed to craft a new bill early next year so that "everybody who has a satellite dish or wants one will be happy," Gramm said. Thus ended an abortive, late-session attempt at an end run around the influential chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
It was a lesson not only in the power of an individual senator under the chamber's rules, but also a sign of Gramm's increasingly active Senate role. Less than a year after taking over the helm of the Senate Banking Committee from the defeated Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), Gramm seemed to be everywhere as the session neared an end.
For those who still remember him as a firebrand conservative backbencher in the House in the 1980s, the transition to influential insider is all the more intriguing because he seems to have made it with many of his signature traits and most of his conservative philosophy intact.
His showdown with the GOP leadership over the satellite provision this week brought out a familiar, Lone Star willingness to anger colleagues and constituents to get his way. Now a member of the Republican establishment in the Senate, he showed he would still defy the establishment to defend his philosophy and turf.
But to those traits have been added a pragmatism and knowledge of legislative tactics that have made him even more formidable, according to Senate colleagues and aides. In agreeing to draft a new bill to help households in less lucrative rural areas get local TV shows on their dishes, Gramm, a passionate free-marketeer, made a striking acknowledgment: "Some social goals," he said, "are not necessarily met by market forces."
With House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), Gramm this week negotiated a major compromise with the Clinton administration that allows the International Monetary Fund to begin easing the debt burden of dozens of poor countries. At the same time, he was having a say in several key amendments to a bankruptcy reform bill lingering on the Senate floor.
Earlier this year, he held up final passage of landmark reform of banking, securities and insurance law by insisting that the administration deal with his objections to "community reinvestment" provisions that require banks to make loans in low-income areas. In the end, Gramm wrangled some concessions, including greater disclosure of money that banks provide community groups.
Perhaps to depict himself as a fiscal sheriff on the lookout for liberal outlaws, Gramm sported an antique Texas Rangers badge for some of the proceedings.
But his biggest coup came Wednesday, when GOP congressional leaders bowed to his demands and stripped a key provision from a major bill setting rules for satellite TV after Gramm threatened to block the whole measure.
The deal allowed Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to attach the satellite bill, minus the provision targeted by Gramm, to the big, year-end spending bill. The House passed that measure Thursday, and the Senate followed suit yesterday. In return, Gramm promised to hold hearings and move legislation on the issue by next April 1.
What riled Gramm was a provision crafted by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) that would have made available as much as $1.2 billion in federal loan guarantees as an incentive to satellite companies to rebroadcast local weather, news and sports in less lucrative rural markets.
So several weeks ago, Commerce and Judiciary Committee members in both houses added the provision while ironing out differences between the satellite TV bills passed by their respective chambers. The House overwhelmingly passed the final version with the new provision on Nov. 8.
But a bipartisan group of supporters had not reckoned with the wrath of Gramm, a conservative foe of government loan guarantees and a newly minted chairman protective of his jurisdiction. In Gramm's view, the provision was corporate welfare that had been "produced out of whole cloth" without adequate consideration of the policy impact, or assurances that rich companies wouldn't walk away with most of the benefits.
"I cannot speak beyond this thousand years," said Gramm in a fiery speech Nov. 9. "But I can assure you that under the rules of the Senate it [the loan guarantee rider] will not become law before the turn of the new millennium, if then."
Constituents flooded his office with calls urging him to "let it go, Phil," said a GOP source. "Football is important in Texas and if they aren't going to be able to get it on TV, it's going to be hot."
But Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), who serves with Gramm on the Banking Committee and who wanted the loan guarantees, was not surprised by Gramm's intervention.
"I think there was both a philosophical concern for him as well as concern over the turf of his committee," Bryan said. "He's smart, he's tough, he's tenacious; he doesn't take any hostages unless he's fully prepared to kill them."
Last year, Gramm worked closely with Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) on the highway bill, and came away with a better grasp of how to make Senate rules work for him, said a GOP aide.
"[President Harry S.] Truman said some of his best times were in the Senate," said Gramm this week when asked if he was happy in the Senate after the failure of his 1996 run for president. "If you do your job and do your homework, this is a very good job. We're dealing with a lot of issues I really care about."