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House Decorum Is Fraying

Correction Appended

House Democratic leaders may have succeeded in passing health care reform but somewhere along the way they lost control of the chamber, where the traditional rules of decorum appear to be crumbling.

Between dozens of Republican Members cheering on a heckler in the gallery as he was being arrested, photos of Democratic Members defeated in 1994 being placed on Democrats’ seats prior to the health care vote, and conservative lawmakers egging on tea party protesters outside the Capitol who hurled racial and homophobic slurs at Democratic lawmakers, the House of Representatives has sounded more like the British House of Commons.

The tipping point was Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) yelling “baby killer” during Sunday night’s debate, a move that Democratic leaders say shows GOP leaders need to regain control of their Members.

Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Monday that Neugebauer needs to go to the well of the House to apologize for his outburst and called on Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) “to rein in his caucus members.”

“These guys are writing their own rules. ... You cannot run this place that way,” Clyburn said. “Boehner is the leader of the Republicans the last time I checked. He needs to take control of his Conference."

Clyburn also blasted Republicans for violating House rules by cheering on a heckler in the gallery as he was being dragged out. Such actions, he said, only add to an environment getting way out of hand.

“That kind of stuff, it festers. I’ve been at this stuff a long time, and I know that for these things to be isolated events, they must be isolated. ... We need to make a statement about this now,” the South Carolina Democrat said.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel responded to Clyburn’s comments by saying his boss was “satisfied with the tone of the debate, which focused on the serious factual arguments against the Democrats’ job-killing government takeover bill.”

Republicans have not been the only ones playing fast and loose with floor rules: On Feb. 24, Republicans objected when Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) called their party “a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance industry.” Faced with the demand that his words be removed form the Congressional Record, Weiner withdrew his remarks. But he then poked the GOP again with similar remarks, which also were withdrawn following another GOP objection. And Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) last week had his words taken down when he accused Republicans of “fear mongering.”

Technically, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is charged with ensuring that rules of decorum are followed in the House. Her office could not be reached for comment. But at least one liberal Democrat questioned, “When did the Speaker become in charge of the political behavior of Members?”

Neugebauer issued a statement Monday acknowledging that he shouted the phrase, claiming that he said, “It’s a baby killer,” referring to the bill and not to Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who was speaking at the time. Only “baby killer” was audible in the chamber.

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