Democrats re-enter stage as protectors of procedure

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Duty presiding over the houses of Congress can be a parliamentary geek’s dream or a shy congressman’s nightmare.

After 12 years watching Republicans sitting in as the speaker, Democrats are again performing the mundane, somnolent and occasionally unintentionally laugh-provoking task of wielding the presiding officer’s gavel.

Most of the work presiding over chamber debate in the House and Senate is decidedly dull, following procedure and managing time on the floor, but every gaffe, cough and parliamentary ruling is caught live by the cameras of C-SPAN.

“It’s just like riding a bike,” says Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania. “I didn’t forget a thing.”

For those who served in the House 12 years ago when Democrats last held the majority, it’s merely a reprise of good old days, but for the freshmen, it’s all new.

Sen. James H. Webb Jr. of Virginia seems nervous, clearing his throat several times as he makes rulings as presiding officer. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois reads the Bible between rulings. It’s rarely entertainment for the galleries, but one day last week one Democratic surrogate announced to the chamber: “The gentleman has expired.”

Several reporters in the press gallery gasped, thinking they were on to a real story, and then realized the gentleman in question had not actually expired, but his time on the floor had.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California uses flashcards to remember the ins and outs of House procedure. A parliamentarian is at hand, just in case.

For advice, many turn to Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

“The rules make sense,” he says. “People like to make fun of them, but they instill dignity. It’s little things, like don’t walk in front of people when they’re talking.”

Some of his colleagues say Mr. Frank’s performance is sometimes a bit over the top, and chuckle at his recent exchange with Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina Republican. Mr. McHenry was needling Democrats for exempting American Samoa from their minimum-wage bill, a reference to America Samoa’s largest employer being based in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s California district.

Mr. McHenry asked Mr. Frank, presiding over the chamber, if it would be “appropriate” to exempt the territory as well from legislation to fund stem-cell research.

“The gentleman will suspend,” an irritated Mr. Frank snapped, ending a terse and tense back-and-forth.

Later, Mr. Frank insisted Mr. McHenry was trying to “assault” the rules.

“The chair will not recognize the gentleman,” he said, banging the gavel and raising his voice. “While the chair is presiding, the gentleman will not make speeches in the guise of a parliamentary inquiry.”

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