Long history of vote-trading on Capitol Hill

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As it has come down in history, President Andrew Johnson’s narrow escape from being the first president convicted on impeachment charges in 1868 depended on the honorable doings of Sen. Edmund Ross of Kansas.

But David O. Stewart, author of “Impeached,” a book looking at the Johnson trial, says it’s more likely the president owed his survival to payments made by his allies’ $150,000 “acquittal fund” and to the patronage jobs he doled out after the vote, all but turning over to Ross some appointments in Kansas and the Colorado and New Mexico territories.

Vote-trading has a long, inglorious history in Congress, and presidents and party leaders alike have played the role of Monty Hall, the original host of TV’s “Let’s Make a Deal.”

In recent days that’s included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who bargained wherever he could to gain the 60 votes needed to pass his version of health care reform.

A final vote occurred Thursday morning, and the bill passed. On Wednesday, Democrats turned back several challenges, including rejecting two claims that the bill is so broad it violates the Constitution.

Democrats also turned back an effort to add a new rule preventing senators from trading votes in exchange for earmarked spending, voting 53-46 against a rule that just two years ago had passed 98-0. Even Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, who co-sponsored the rule in 2007, voted against it this time.

Senators’ change-of-heart may have come based on the realization they never would have gotten this far on health care without the deals Mr. Reid struck.

Behind door No. 1 was Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska’s bargain to exempt his state from having to pay for expanded Medicaid costs under the bill. Door No. 2 held $100 million to help Louisiana pay Medicaid costs, which secured Sen. Mary L. Landrieu’s vote. Door No. 3 offered extra Medicaid help for Vermont, which preserved the support of Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. And Door No. 4 included protections for Medicare Advantage customers in three states, even as customers in other states face cuts.

It’s in the eye of the beholder, though, whether those deals are more or less altruistic than the days of old.

“That’s not that different than the patronage jobs; it’s just a different kind of trophy to bring home,” Mr. Stewart said. “In the 1860s, we didn’t have so many massive government programs you could get pieces of.”

Still, Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, said there is a difference. In the past, folks traded votes in exchange for specific goodies for themselves or their state: a pet project, say. But, Mr. Gregg said, in this bill, senators bargained for policy changes that actually exempt their states from part of the law they are being asked to support.

“There’s nothing like this,” said Mr. Gregg, looking back on his quarter-century in Congress. “It balkanizes the country.”

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said he expects Democrats will hear during their winter break from their constituents angry at the deals.

He pointed to several Democrats who have had to denounce the deals, including Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who took to the Senate floor Monday to denounce the bargaining.

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