Nothing in Washington is a done deal until it's done. So, a provision considered a slam dunk - one that would let companies draw off excess assets from their pension funds to pay for other employee benefits - ended up getting stripped from the Senate budget bill by an overwhelming 94-5 vote. Only only one Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, stood by Chairman William V. Roth Jr., who had initiated the proposal in the Senate.
How the provision got pulled out of the Senate budget package is a story few outside the Beltway may have heard. In an example of rare bipartisanship these days, the effort was led by a few moderate Republican senators and liberal Democrats who consider it bad politics for pension policy to be driven by revenue considerations. After all, a key reason the provision was in the tax bill to begin with was that it raised a lot of money, a whopping $10 billion over five years in the House tax-writing committee's version and about half of that in the more restrictive Senate version.
After the provision first surfaced in the House Ways and Means Committee budget bill blueprint, the group of moderate senators tried to talk Mr. Roth out of including a similar provision in his budget outline. Mr. Roth apparently refused to listen.
That's when the group pulled out all of the stops. The group was headed by Nancy Kassebaum, the moderate Republican from Kansas who chairs the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee; Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords, second in seniority on the committee; and two influential Democrats, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.
They sent "dear colleague" letters. They cornered colleagues in the Cloak Room, where members frequently lobby each other. And they pleaded with their peers in public statements on the Senate floor.
Mr. Moynihan's letter to his colleagues warned that the Senate Finance Committee provision "would encourage employers to use pension plans as tax-sheltered corporate piggy banks." Though the provision seemed to limit a company's use of a reversion to pay only other employee benefit expenses, Mr. Moynihan noted money is fungible and companies could use the cash elsewhere, such as on executive bonuses or bigger dividends.
Ms. Kassebaum, in a floor statement, said: "We are making some assumptions here which we do not really know the consequences of, and I feel that it is absolutely essential that we do not begin to make inroads into pension plans in which retirees have counted on without knowing the consequences."
Because the coalition needed only four Republicans to push the amendment through (assuming all 46 Democrats in the Senate voted for it), it concentrated its efforts on Democrats, rather than Republicans.
The effort gathered such momentum that, in the end, even Mr. Roth was willing to cut a deal with the coalition. It was too late. An informal poll by the moderates taken the morning the Senate was to vote on the entire tax bill showed as many as 70 senators were willing to vote for Mr. Kennedy's amendment to pull out the pension reversion provision.
By then, even Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole of Kansas knew the battle was lost. He agreed to accept the amendment without a roll call so Republican proponents of the proposal would not be embarrassed. But Mr. Kennedy insisted on a head count.
At that point, few Republicans wanted to be publicly known as voting for a provision that had become equated with bad government. Only five Republicans stood their ground; Mr. Dole was not one of them. Aside from Mr. Roth and Mr. Nickles, the others were Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Hank Brown of Colorado and Rod Grams of Minnesota.