Saturday, July 19, 2003

Simmering tensions in the U.S. House turned into a heated debate when Democrats tried but failed to pass a resolution reprimanding a senior Republican committee chairman for calling Capitol Police to try to quell a Democratic outburst during a hearing.

Republicans, who defeated the resolution on a party-line vote, said Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, actually called the police to restrain Rep. Pete Stark, California Democrat, who they said was about to start a fight in the committee yesterday morning.

After being told to “shut up” by Rep. Scott McInnis, Colorado Republican, Mr. Stark, according to the hearing transcript, said: “Oh you think you are big enough to make me, you little wimp? Come on. Come over here and make me. I dare you. You little fruitcake. You little fruitcake. I said, you are a fruitcake.”

But Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the top Democrat on the committee, said Mr. Thomas actually called the police to oust them from a committee library and conference room, where they retreated in order to plan strategy while the committee was considering a pension bill. The Democrats, upset at receiving the 90-page piece of legislation around midnight yesterday, demanded that a staff member read the entire text of the bill as a way to prolong the debate while they strategized.

“No one person has the right to take away the rights given to us,” Mr. Rangel said.

Mr. Stark remained in the room to object if Republicans tried to waive the reading, and in the course of the back-and-forth objections, Mr. Stark made his remarks, which Republicans said amounted to threats.

Mr. McInnis said later they were “within moments of a physical engagement.”

The Capitol Police went to the conference room, but ended up deferring to the House sergeant-at-arms, who decided the dispute was a congressional matter, not a law enforcement question. The $50 billion pension bill passed the committee by voice vote after Mr. Thomas had the full reading waived.

In the afternoon, though, Democrats brought a resolution to the House floor reprimanding Mr. Thomas and asking that the bill be sent back to committee.

Democrats have increasingly felt abused as the minority party in the House, where the rules are much less protective of legislative minorities than in the Senate. And they saw Mr. Thomas’ actions yesterday in that same light.

“Republicans are in denial about their behavior, and it is clear that Democrats must draw a line in the sand,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said. “Why isn’t it clear to you that it isn’t right to call the police to evict your colleagues from a room?”

She called Republicans’ explanation that the police were actually called to respond to Mr. Stark’s outburst “more pathetic than anything.”

Republicans conceded the entire incident was not a moment of credit to the House.

But Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, Connecticut Republican and committee member, said, “To elevate an incident of which no member of either party is proud is destructive to this body.”

The resolution was tabled 170-143, with all Republicans supporting the tabling and all Democrats opposing it.

Republicans said Democrats resorted to the tactics because they didn’t have their own alternative.

“Since the Democrats have no agenda, no leadership and no vision to make America a better place, they choose to play childish Washington games,” said Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican and member of the committee. “These games may excite Washington, but do nothing to solve our real problems.”

The Ways and Means Committee, arguably the most powerful committee in the House, handles legislation relating to taxes, Social Security and Medicare. Chartered in 1789, it has a history of colorful chairmen, including several who went on to become president.

Asked by a reporter about the chain of events yesterday, Mr. Thomas just whirled his finger in the air and walked into a closed meeting without answering. He was on the House floor during the entire debate, but did not speak.

Mr. Stark was not present on the floor during the debate, though he did vote for the resolution. His spokesman did not return a call for comment.

Republicans released a list of past transgressions from Mr. Stark, including calling Mrs. Johnson a “whore” for the insurance industry and said of her expertise on health care issues, “the gentle lady got her medical degree through pillow talk.”

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