"Within the Republican caucus there were a number of senators who were very uneasy about this, just from the dollar figure alone," said Hagel. "The $400 billion number was critical because that fit within the budget which most of us voted for." With costs exceeding that figure, the bill's outcome was far from assured passage.
But the Republican leadership dismiss this point. "These estimates are just that," Frist said. "They're guesstimates, to my mind. Nobody knows, and nobody will know, what this bill is going to ultimately cost." Besides, Frist added, Congress is ultimately supposed to rely upon the figures provided by the Congressional Budget Office. And as recently as Wednesday, the Republican head of the CBO insisted that the $395 billion figure remains accurate.
When did the administration know about the higher cost?
But clearly the Bush administration thought it would be much more than that. So members of Congress on both the left and right began to ask: When did the Bush administration know that the bill would probably cost more than $100 billion more than it had said?
On Jan. 30 of this year, Bjorklund got a hint. "One Friday afternoon, working in my office, I heard a fax come in, I checked the machine, and it was a table that was unattributed, it came anonymously, and it showed an estimate performed by Foster's office on June 11," Bjorklund said. "It was an estimate of a package that was similar to what passed the Senate and it showed a score of $551 billion."
According to this fax, therefore, around the time Foster was allegedly being silenced, the Bush administration already possessed evidence that the numbers it was touting to Congress were far too low.
On Wednesday congressional Democrats asked the Justice Department to investigate the matter "It may well have been a crime to have withheld this information from the congress," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. "There is statutory authority that says you can't keep the Congress from getting the information we need."
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson declined an interview with ABCNEWS, but last week he said he would have his department's inspector general look into the charges against Scully. Though he didn't seem overly concerned. "I don't believe the White House interfered at all with Rick Foster," Thompson said. "I don't think there has been any evidence whatsoever of that, and i think the IG is going to find that out."
Hagel says that it's an open debate as to whether that larger number would have prevented the bill from passing. "I have never seen a bill with so much intensity, so much political pressure than this bill," he said. "So even with a $550 billion number, whether it would a passed the Senate or not, I don't know, because the politics of this were of such intensity that it was difficult, especially on the Republican side, to walk away from this."
A Very Long 15 Minutes
Which is not to say that the bills sailed through the House and Senate with ease.
You could tell things were far from normal from the moment the Medicare bill was called for a vote in the House of Representatives — at 3:01 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2003.
"It was an unusual evening," recalled Toomey. "Well, it wasn't an evening. It was an unusual early morning, to be more precise."
"The yeas and nays are ordered," the House chair intoned that morning. "This will be a 15-minute vote."