Amid debate over whether to condemn tweets by President Donald Trump as racist on Tuesday, the House descended into parliamentary chaos, with Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, who was presiding, abruptly dropping the gavel and saying, “I abandon the chair.”
It was an extraordinary moment on an extraordinary day, as the House considered a resolution condemning Trump’s tweets from the weekend that told four freshman Democrats from the House to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Before Cleaver’s action, House debate had come to an abrupt halt when Georgia Republican Doug Collins took a rare procedural step to “take down” comments by Speaker Nancy Pelosi characterizing Trump’s tweets as racist.
“Every member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us to condemn the president’s racist tweets,” said Pelosi, speaking on the House floor.
Collins interjected unsuccessfully, but once Pelosi was finished speaking, made Pelosi an offer.
“I was just going to give the gentle speaker of the House, if she would like to rephrase that comment?” he asked.
Pelosi responded that she cleared her remarks with the parliamentarian before she read them on the floor.
“I ask that her words be taken down,” Collins said as Pelosi walked away from the rostrum to a spattering of applause. “I make a point of order that the gentlewoman’s words are unparliamentary and request they be taken down.”
Collins set off a more than hour-long review and debate over Pelosi’s comments before a decision could be rendered.
Finally, after a staffer could be heard saying to Cleaver, who was presiding over the House, that it was time to announce, “the chair is prepared to rule” and read a prepared statement, Cleaver instead said, “the chair is ready to make a statement” and set aside the printed remarks.
“I came in here to try to do this in a fair way. I kept warning both sides let’s not do this, hoping we could get through,” the Missouri Democrat said, referring to multiple times during the debate in which he had to admonish members for their language that didn't comply with House rules.
“We don’t ever, ever, want to pass up an opportunity, it seems, to escalate. And that’s what this is,” he added, referring to Republicans' motion to strike Pelosi's remarks. “I dare anybody to look at any of the footage and see if there was any unfairness, but unfairness is not enough because we want to just fight.”
Cleaver’s decision to abandon the chair appeared unprecedented, at least in recent history.
“I’ve not seen it before,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., before taking the gavel himself to resume proceedings. Hoyer has served in the House since 1981.
Taking over the duties of the chair at Pelosi's request, Hoyer announced the parliamentarian's ruling against the speaker that “the words should not be used in debate,” according to a precedent from May 15, 1984.
Collins then moved to strike Pelosi’s words from the record, leading to another vote on the matter. The House rejected Collins’ motion, 190-232.
Under House rules, lawmakers cannot “engage in personalities” against the president, meaning they are not supposed to impugn the character or intent of whoever occupies the White House.
Under Jefferson’s Manual, the text governing procedure of the chamber specifically bars references to racial or other discrimination by the president. Remarks by House members cannot refer to the president as racist or the president “having made a bigoted or racist statement.”
Pelosi’s statement on the floor is nearly identical to a provision that is contained in the text of the resolution the House was debating at the time.
“The House of Representatives strongly condemns President Donald Trump’s racist comments,” reads the resolution text.
Pelosi and Democrats knew that if they called Trump a racist on the floor that Republicans might try to take their comments down. Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern had warned the caucus about that during their weekly meeting Tuesday morning and urged them to check with parliamentarian regarding exact language.
Pelosi then chimed in, saying, “I’m not” checking with parliamentarian, drawing laughter from members, according to an aide who was present. She said since Trump's “words were racist” members shouldn't be concerned about having their words taken down.
The process for a House member demand that words of another lawmaker be taken down requires the remarks in question to be read to the House so that the speaker can determine if they are offensive or violate the rules of the House. Tuesday's proceedings were complicated because Collins request was about the speaker’s own words.
Under regular procedure, however rare, if the speaker determines the words are out of order, the violator is given a chance to withdraw or amend the remarks. Pelosi refused to do that, saying that she had cleared them with the parliamentarian.
Ultimately, if a member’s words are ruled to be out of order, the member in question cannot speak again on the House floor without permission from the chamber. The member is allowed to vote.
“No, I have absolutely none,” Pelosi told reporters when asked if she has any interest in taking back her words.
Pelosi then turned the focus back on Trump saying, “I don’t think any of the words that the president used would’ve stood up [on] the floor.”
Pelosi declined to directly answer a question about whether she agreed with the precedent Hoyer cited.
“I stand by my statement,” she said. “I’m proud of the attention that is being called to it because what the president was completely inappropriate against our colleagues, but not just against them, against so many people in our country.”
“I think it was the right decision to go with precedent. It was the right position not to strike the words,” Hoyer said.
Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, criticized Democrats for voting against striking Pelosi’s words from the record.
“I was compelled to demand that the House enforce the rules against Speaker Pelosi, for her deliberate attack on the president. Democrats admitted her words violated the rules of decorum, the very rules that ensure democracy’s every voice can be heard as we carry out the people’s business,” he said in a statement.
“It bears repeating the House prizes decorum because it is a symptom of and a catalyst for a healthy, confident democracy,” he added.
Cleaver later on said he did not want any part of the escalating situation.
He said Pelosi and the entire leadership team wanted him to rule against her. He just got frustrated that after “calling balls and strikes” as several members on both sides of the aisle violated the decorum rules that Republicans decided to escalate things in regard to Pelosi’s remark.
“We were 95 percent through with the debate ... and boom at the end, someone wants to go to war,” he said.
But her request was not contemporaneous, which made her request out of order.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified who made a motion to strike Tip O’Neill’s words. It was Trent Lott who made the motion.
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