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Legislator backpedals on bribery allegations

WASHINGTON -- Before a recent predawn vote on Medicare, Republican lawmakers pleaded with fellow GOP Representative Nick Smith to change his vote and support the bill. Was it just another case of political arm twisting, or something more?

The exchanges that morning on the floor of the House, when a handful of votes could decide the fate of the Medicare bill, have put the retiring Michigan congressman in the middle of a storm of charges and calls for an investigation.

Smith stood firm and voted against the bill, which passed by five votes Nov. 22. But shortly afterward he leveled an explosive charge: Unnamed lawmakers and business interests had promised substantial amounts of money to his son's congressional campaign if Smith voted for the bill, and had threatened to support other candidates if he didn't change his vote.

But yesterday, Smith was backpedaling, saying his earlier suggestion of a bribery attempt was "technically incorrect." By that time, however, the Justice Department was reviewing requests for an inquiry.

And the GOP was mounting a defense, with former House speaker Newt Gingrich telling C-SPAN yesterday that Smith was "a disgruntled retiring member" who was the victim of nothing more than the usual treatment in a close vote.

Smith, a fiscally conservative Republican, refused to support the bill because he said it would cost too much. Smith said he was subject to intense pressure from Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois. On his website the day after the vote, Smith said "other members and groups made offers of extensive financial campaign support" for his son, Brad, an attorney who is running to take the seat when the elder Smith steps down next year. Neither Smith nor his son will say who spoke to the congressman that morning.

Hastert's office has said the speaker only suggested that a vote for the Medicare bill would help Brad because it was a popular bill.

Smith also said Republicans weren't pressuring him to back away from his previous comments.

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