When Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) hustled onto the House floor Wednesday night, he knew that he was about five votes short of the number needed to pass a trade agreement that had become the toughest bill of the year for the Republican leadership.
"Your adrenaline is pumping 100 miles an hour -- you're excited about the prospect of winning a big one," he recalled in an interview. "At the same time -- especially in something like this, when you go on the floor knowing you don't have the votes -- there's this seed of doubt back there that we may not win this one."
His game plan was familiar. Republican leaders extended the usual 15-minute vote to more than an hour while they cajoled and offered deals to win over reluctant Republican colleagues. The decisive 217th vote came from Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), who had told constituents for months that he would oppose the trade deal, which labor unions insist could cost jobs in the United States.
But after Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) sidled up to LaTourette and pressed him to help the party out of a jam, a green rectangle signifying a "yes" vote lit up next to LaTourette's name on the wall of the packed, rowdy House chamber.
Lawmakers said DeLay acted as the "closer," making some of the toughest sells and focusing on committee chairmen after months of work by Blunt, who had made the trade deal his priority as long ago as last year. Administration officials said it would not have passed without DeLay and Blunt.
The 217 to 215 victory on the Central American Free Trade Agreement was crucial for President Bush. But it was also symbolic of DeLay's continued hold over the House despite six months of damaging publicity about overseas travel arranged by special interests and his close relationships with lobbyists.
Some GOP lawmakers said that despite facing an investigation by the House ethics committee in coming months, DeLay maintains an iron command of the Republican caucus. The outcome of the trade pact showed that he remains the master of squeezing out just enough votes on issues important to the White House and House leadership but unpopular among the rank and file.
DeLay was also central to passage this week of major energy and highway legislation. Earlier, he went before television cameras to signal conservative lawmakers' determination to blunt the impact of a Supreme Court decision allowing localities to use eminent domain to take private property for economic-development projects. He presides over weekly news conferences with brio, laughing off tough questions and larding his remarks with attacks on Democrats.
The 11-term Republican from suburban Houston looked vulnerable to a leadership challenge when Congress convened in January. Potential rivals were dusting off their 48-hour plans in case of an opening or a race. DeLay assembled a large outside legal team.
But after scoring a series of victories for the White House and a lull in media coverage of his ethics problems, almost all talk of deposing him has ceased. On the House floor yesterday, he was showered with thanks and congratulations.
"He's held his own, and he's stronger now than he was six months ago," said Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), vice chairman of the House Republican Conference. "DeLay's detractors have hit him with their best shot and he's still hanging in there strong."
Kingston spends much of his time in Washington in meetings with DeLay, and attributed his resilience to a prodigious work ethic, a disciplined schedule and a well-organized staff. "It's not popular to say," Kingston added, "but one reason is that he knows Jesus personally. When the chips are down, you usually start looking up."
Nonetheless, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, sees a diminution of DeLay's power because he cannot appear as often with Republicans in their home states and districts. Yet Emanuel acknowledged that DeLay remains at the top of his game in Washington.
"The schedule speaks volumes -- he's persona non grata around the country," Emanuel said. "Challengers and incumbents can't be seen with him. But at the Capitol, he's a powerful force. This Congress is his domain. The interests he supports continue to reign."
That power and legislative skill were on full display during the showdown over CAFTA this week. DeLay, whose tan suit stood out on the floor amid a sea of dark ones, darted around the chamber Wednesday night, folding and unfolding a tally sheet he kept in his breast pocket. At one point, he sat backward on his knees as he worked a recalcitrant Republican in the seat behind.
Blunt, the whip, approached LaTourette, a moderate from the Cleveland and Akron suburbs, and said, "If you can do it, now's the time." LaTourette said that the leaders calibrate "which vulnerable Rs would not need to be with us at the end of the day," then lean on others. He realized he was one of those chosen to "take one for the team."
"You gotta give me a minute," he said he replied. LaTourette said he went into the cloakroom and made a phone call to a friend, then came out and voted. The voting was gaveled shut at 12:03 a.m. Thursday, and Bush and the House leadership had their victory.
Recalling the evening, DeLay explained: "You understand the dynamics of a tough vote. You may not have every vote in hand as you walk on the floor during the vote. But you understand how things work around here, and there are enough possibilities out there to make it happen."
He added: "When you appeal to their sense of principle, it's hard for them to deny you. And there are others that just understand the dynamics of teamwork, sticking together, working with each other that you appeal to."
With Democrats overwhelmingly opposed to CAFTA and many Republicans wary of it for regional concerns, DeLay generated support by giving aggressive pep talks in meetings of the House Republican Conference, when others were merely chatting about the issue. On the night of the big vote, his staff laid out Chinese food for Republicans in his office on the first floor of the Capitol. Vice President Cheney, holding last-minute meetings with members who might switch, dropped by for a bite.
Of the 10 House members who were the last to vote, nine were Republicans. DeLay and his lieutenants split up for individual conferences with them. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) persuaded Rep. Robin Hayes (N.C.), who had been a vocal CAFTA opponent, to change his vote by asking him to name what he needed or wanted for his district.
Among the last GOP members to join the pro-CAFTA side was Robert Aderholt (Ala.), who had declared himself to be leaning strongly against the deal, even after an Oval Office meeting with Bush. "I believe the leadership would have done whatever they needed to get this vote -- by that I mean anything that would have been legally possible," Aderholt said. "Ultimately, they would have gotten the votes somewhere."
Staff writer Paul Blustein contributed to this report.