WASHINGTON -- Sen. Pete Wilson, a tough former Marine, said he was 'ready to roll' into the Senate if his vote was needed -- a little more than 24 hours after surgeons cut out his ruptured appendix.
Dressed in a brown bathrobe, a tan blanket covering his legs, Wilson came into the Senate chamber in a wheel chair, an intravenous tube feeding antibiotics into his arm, a drainage tube siphoning poison from an abcess in his body.
Senate Republican leader Robert Dole, scurrying to put together a majority for his administration-approved budget, hoped until the last minute he would not have to summon his California colleague from nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital.
But around midnight, Dole no longer had a choice. And a short time later, an ambulance snaked through the night to Capitol Hill, carrying the 51-year-old Wilson on a gurney to the Carriage Entrance where he was cheered by a handful of senators, calling out 'atta boy Pete.'
'He wasn't asked, he offered,' a spokesman said. 'He feels very strongly that a deficit package has to go through.'
Wilson's appearance, rumored throughout the afternoon, was only one - although by far the most dramatic -- of the efforts Dole made during a hectic day and night of non-stop wheeling and dealing in his office.
There was no record of a senator ever having left his sickbed one day after undergoing major surgery that is expected to keep him in the hospital 10 to 14 days.
Even then, as the clock ticked toward the deadline and Vice President George Bush stayed close by to break a tie vote, Dole was not sure he had enough votes for his plan to pass.
With most of the senators in their seats after a series of rapid roll call votes throughout the evening and the galleries virtually empty, Dole expressed his doubts.
'I'm not certain we have the votes,' Dole said. 'But after this amendment, we'll see what we have.'
Although Dole had signalled early that he was going to shoot for a vote on his amendment before adjourning the Senate for the day, he held out the possibility that he would postpone the long-awaited showndown until next week.
But early in the afternoon, the decision to go was made after President Reagan, finishing a 10-day European trip in Portugal, informed Dole he was backing the plan.
In addition, Reagan placed a telephone call to Sen. John Stennis, D-Miss., the rugged 83-year-old veteran, himself in a wheelchair since his cancerous left leg was amputated only months ago. He won no commitment.
Dole, faced with the grim prospect of possibly not getting any help from the Democrats for a plan that included a one-year freeze on Social Security cost-of-living increases, had to find his votes among the Republicans and some were more than dubious.
Hour after hour, Dole met with Republican senators in his office, helped by the White House's top liaison, giving in here, adding there to win one, two crucial votes.
But he quickly lost Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, the feisty New Yorker, who had sponsored an earlier amendment restoring the Social Security COLAs.
'It would just be viewed as an absolute charade,' D'Amato said. 'I'm not going to do that.'
But Dole won the commitment of Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine, by adding $3.2 billion for rural housing over a three-year period.
Others were brought into the camp by holding Pentagon spending to just inflation levels, saving programs on the Reagan hit list such as Amtrak, the Small Business Administration and the Job Corps, reducing sharply or by small amounts cuts in pet programs.
But Dole still did not know, for sure. He talked with Sen. Paula Hawkins, R-Fla., co-sponsor with D-Amato on the COLA amendment, but refused to say how she would vote. Rumors abounded that Sen. Edward Zorinsky, a Republican turned Democrat from Nebraska, would rejoin his party on the key vote.
At 1:25 a.m. Friday, the roll call began and the first surprise came when Sen. Dennis DeConcinci, D-Ariz., voted with the Republicans. It was a mistake and he later changed his vote.
A short time later, the middle doors opened and Wilson was wheeled backwards into the rear of the chamber. When he turned, he said 'What's the question' bringing laughter and applause from his colleagues. Then he voted out of order and Dole came up the aisle to shake his hand.
But the Republicans quickly lost Sens. Charles Mathias, R-Md., Arlen Specter, R-Pa. and D'Amato. Hawkins was hanging back. Then Zorinsky voted with the Republicans, the only Democrat to break ranks, bringing low whistles to the chamber.
Hawkins, dressed in bright green, walked to the front of the chamber to check the vote. Satisfied, her vote was not needed, she voted 'no' in a voice that was barely audible.
Sen. Spark Matsunaga, D-Hawaii, forced the Senate to wait for about five minutes for his arrival, and made it a 49-49 tie. Bush promptly broke it to give Reagan, Dole and the Republicans a 50-49 victory.
For the moment, it was as Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said: 'The promised land ... has been reached.'
After the vote, Wilson said he left his hospital bed to come to the Senate 'because this may be the most important vote, perhaps, of my career.
He said he felt 'not terriffic, but not bad.' He was pale but in good spirits, joking with reporters, 'what the Hell are we all doing up this late?'
One of his doctors, he said, 'was very diplomatic but he was trying to talk me out of it.'