Monday, January 15, 2007

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.”

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, was bemused.

“You also have some personalities up there that are different,” he said. “Some of these guys have to really bite their tongue from using that position in a partisan way.”

Conceded Mr. Frank: “Obviously, there’s a little bit of an ego thing getting up there.”

Mr. Flake thinks Republicans came to taking serving as a surrogate speaker for granted. “What’s been different since the Democrats took over is that now, when you’re speaking on a bill, is to look up and see the speaker actually paying attention.”

The actual speaker of the House rarely presides over debate. Mrs. Pelosi, the first woman to assume the position, has taken the chair only a few times since Congress convened Jan. 4. But each time legislation from her “first 100-hours agenda” passes the House she exclaims: “The bill is passed!”

The “presiding officer” of the chambers, as he or she is officially called, is often responsible for making sure chatter doesn’t drown the remarks at the podium.

“The chamber is not in order, could senators please take their conversations off the floor,” Mr. Obama boomed following a recent ethics vote, and then returned to his Bible reading in the Book of Luke.

Mr. Obama smiled when recounting an Iraq war debate between Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who has served longer than anyone else in the Senate, and Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.

Mr. Byrd delivered a bit of the impassioned rhetoric for which he is locally famous, thundering: “How long are the American taxpayers … and mothers and fathers … going to continue to put up with this expenditure of blood and money, and for what?” He paused, and added, “I thank my friend for yielding [his time]. I hope I don’t appear to be discourteous in any way.”

Answered Mr. Kyl: “The senator from West Virginia has again asked the most fundamental of all questions. … We know that the world in that region would be thrown into absolute chaos with probably hundreds of thousands of casualties, if not more, if we leave Iraq a failed state.”

In a later interview, Mr. Obama said of the exchange: “That was the closest I’ve seen to actual deliberation on the floor of the Senate.”

The congressmen are well aware that millions, or at least thousands, could be watching. Some primp and preen before assuming the chair, others make sure to look alert, avoiding yawns and rolling of eyes.

Mr. Frank says he makes sure to not wear a garish necktie lest the pattern become a distraction for the television cameras. He recalls a piece of advice someone gave him years ago: “Don’t sit down too much, you look like a midget.”

c Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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