In the end, more than 40 senators changed their minds.
"It wouldn't have happened without Rush Limbaugh," concluded Tony Blankley, spokesman for Rep. Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.), who led the effort to quash the bill. "I don't have any doubt about that."
At a time when voters may think nothing can choke the surge of hot air inside Washington's Beltway, talk radio is a stiff breeze from the hinterlands that can change the political weather.
Where 200 talk-radio stations dotted the landscape eight years ago, more than 1,000 are chattering now. Most feature conservative hosts and draw audiences in which Republicans outnumber Democrats, 2-1.
Even if they are not a true barometer of what America thinks, their voices have come to function like numbers in public-opinion polls: stark reminders to Congress of what "the people" want - heed it or be doomed.
And not surprisingly, some politicians have learned that lesson well enough to turn it on its ear: They try to manipulate talk-radio programs that, in turn, manipulate them.
"In recent years, talk radio has become a significant force in creating and molding public opinion," said Richard Vatz, a political commentator for WBAL Radio in Baltimore who has studied the talk boom. "We never used to have an ongoing national discussion about news events. . . . It's a whole new world."
In this daily gabfest, the bombastic Limbaugh is the 800-pound gorilla. For 3 1/2 hours every weekday, he is handed an open mike to blast President Clinton, the "feminazis," the environmental "wackos," the "multicultural crowd," the "liberal" media, and everyone else who rubs his right-thinking brain the wrong way.
With an audience of 20 million a week on radio alone, Limbaugh is the best example of the power of talk. No one has a larger audience for as much air time, not even close. And in six years, Limbaugh has ascended from a political nobody to probably the most courted - and reviled - conservative in America.
Lawmakers call him. Political groups fax him. They all want Limbaugh and his kind on their side - hyping bills, roasting enemies, rousing the troops.
The Republicans have it down to a science.
At the House Republican Study Committee, for example, they have a list of 300 talk-radio programs. And during big legislative battles - when they need
average folks to pressure Congress - they pump out GOP opinion, by fax, all over the country.
If they get good air time, there's no telling what might happen.
"Sometimes the calls start within five minutes," said Trish Brink, spokeswoman for Rep. Tom DeLay (R., Texas), who she says championed the idea four years ago. "It's much better than a 30-second sound bite" on TV.
Craig Shirley, a GOP consultant who represents the National Rifle Association and the American Conservative Union, faxes snippets of opinion to 735 talk stations - "virtually all right of center," he said.
"Radio talk is controlling the national debate," Shirley said.
Democrats don't have as much enthusiasm for talk radio. At the Democratic National Committee, opinion nuggets get faxed to 100 "friendly" stations. And in part the Democrats are faxing just to "get some balance out there," said spokesman Jim Whitney.
"I think it's easy to exaggerate the effect of talk radio" in presidential elections, he said. Still, Whitney acknowledged that in legislative battles, talk can be a swaying force.
The recent lobbying-reform bill may be the clearest example.
It was expected to pass easily. Many lawmakers reasoned it would be political suicide - during an election season - to object to a bill designed to limit influence-peddling in Congress.
But then Republicans, led by Gingrich, reshaped the meaning of the bill - and talk radio helped carry the torch.
It started after Gingrich faxed Limbaugh his allegation that the bill was a move by Democrats to force complicated regulations on grass-roots groups that had helped defeat Clinton's health-care reform.
Limbaugh took Gingrich's view to the air - describing the bill as ''Hillary's revenge" and contending that it was an attempt to silence ordinary Americans.
"They're trying to shut you up," Limbaugh bellowed. "They don't want constituents expressing their opinions anymore about what's going on in Washington. . . . I've told you this, I don't know how many times, but in the deep, dark recesses of the halls and other places in Washington, you are mocked, you're laughed at, you're thought of as a bunch of idiot hick hayseeds."
In eight days, the bill made the air in nearly every city and town in America - and also was debated on the Internet computer network, said Amy Moritz, a self-described talk-radio junkie and president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative, grass-roots action foundation.
"The ability to generate an instant tidal wave was impressive," said a congressional staffer who fielded calls. "The phones rang off the hook."
The bill died in the Senate, after supporters failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. Forty-six senators voted against a bill containing measures that had cleared the Senate months earlier in near-unanimous votes.
The frustrated majority leader, Sen. George J. Mitchell (D., Maine), fumed at his colleagues:
"Republican senators raised . . . fictional arguments, suddenly got a few phone calls that they and their allies had organized, and then used the phone calls, which they solicited, as rationale for reversing their positions."
Republicans killed the bill in order to deny Democrats any victory in Congress that might help them in the November elections, Democrats alleged.
Talk radio has been around 35 years, usually attracting conservatives who felt unrepresented by the mainstream media - "the cranky fringe," said Wayne Munson, author of All Talk: The Talk Show in Media Culture.
Its popularity soared in the late 1980s. AM radio was looking for a more profitable format. The "fairness doctrine" that mandated equal broadcast time for controversial views was repealed in 1987 by the Federal Communications Commission. Baby boomers were interested in politics again. And America's frustrated were looking for a place to vent.
Talk radio exploded.
Nationally, talkers went to town on the congressional pay raise of 1989. They made hay of President George Bush's tax increases in 1990. They weighed in against Clinton's nomination of Zoe Baird for attorney general.
More recently, they railed against health-care reform - a natural target
because it is so closely identified with Clinton, the man talk radio loves to hate.
"My sense is that talk radio had a very big impact on health care," said Robert Blendon, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. "You could get a very extreme view there that you couldn't get elsewhere."
The magic of talk radio is not persuasion. It does not change minds. Instead, it focuses people on one subject - spinning the news, framing it with personal indignation, throwing in a bit of biting humor.
"Talk shows have a drama to them," said Vatz, the radio commentator, who also is a professor at Towson State University outside Baltimore. "That's why they're so popular. There's an enemy and a sense that, 'They're not fooling us, and maybe we're going to even make them pay for it.' "
Though not as loud as Limbaugh, more moderate and liberal-leaning hosts do exist in talk radio: Jim Hightower in Austin, Texas; Alan Colmes in New York; and Ronn Owens in San Francisco.
And talk radio can have a dark side that looms larger than politics, critics contend. Hosts such as Limbaugh divide and polarize Americans, they say.
"Rush Limbaugh makes everyone feel comfortable with their prejudices," said Steven Rendall, of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media watchdog group in New York that publicized dozens of misrepresentations it says Limbaugh uses to support his politics.
"If you're a white guy making $100,000 a year, he's telling you you're not the problem," he says. "The problem is the gays, the minorities, the homeless, the media."
However, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that Limbaugh is no more error-prone than most.
"He is basically adopting the standard conservative arguments. He's as false or true as they are," she said.
In New Jersey, political leaders have been reacting to comments by talk- show host Bob Grant, of WABC in New York, that were criticized as racist. Republican Gov. Whitman announced two weeks ago that she will no longer appear on Grant's show. And Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg assailed Grant and then jumped on his challenger, Garabed "Chuck" Haytaian, for sticking by the host.
The talk trend has so dismayed Clinton that he lashed out at the ''unremitting drumbeat of negativism and cynicism." The President spoke out during - of all things - a talk-radio interview.
But then, he was not the first politician to capitalize on the medium that berated him.
Lawmakers line up for the chance to be on New York's "Imus in the Morning" show, where host Don Imus makes sport of lampooning guests. Still they come, and come again - Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R., Kan.), Vice President Gore, and even Clinton, a four-timer.
In this bold new world, some political types cannot talk enough - so they get their own shows: gadfly Ross Perot, Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, and former California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Even so, none has outdone Rush Limbaugh.
Limbaugh's most loyal fans call themselves "dittoheads" to show their complete agreement with their leader. Six million have bought his books. Nearly 500,000 buy his newsletter for $30 a year.
One recent afternoon, the master of the mike took a call from a South Carolina mother who complained that a college professor with a liberal agenda was trying to "indoctrinate" her son.
Limbaugh simply asked for the name of the college - and the switchboard was soon jammed at Spartanburg Methodist in Spartanburg, S.C.
"One little comment on his show and the phones lit up," said John W. Anderson, the professor, who denied the accusation. "It was just amazing."