Chaos Reigns in House as Police Officers Are Called in to Help Settle Ways & Means Dispute

Posted July 18, 2003 at 6:53pm

Peacemakers tried to intervene after a contentious House Ways and Means Committee markup, but the chamber melted down anyway amid a storm of insults and personal accusations on the House floor Friday afternoon.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) huddled privately before she introduced a resolution to admonish Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) for allegedly ramming through a bill over Democratic objections and siccing the Capitol Police on committee Democrats.

The high-level meeting did not produce a detente, however, so Pelosi took her resolution to the floor. Before the House ultimately voted to table the resolution, others intervened.

Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) tried to settle the matter to the satisfaction of both Thomas and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), the panel’s ranking member. But that effort also failed.

The tension started Friday morning, when Democrats from the Ways and Means retreated to a library to mull a pension reform bill. The minority charged that they were left no time to digest the substitute version of the long-standing Portman-Cardin bill, so they left Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) in the committee room to stall for time while the others plotted strategy.

Republicans say Democrats walked out on the proceedings and did not object when Thomas moved to pass the legislation.

In addition, Republicans say Stark threatened fellow committee member Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Fla.) during the markup, calling his colleague a “little wimp” and a “fruitcake.”

At some point, Thomas decided to call in the Capitol Police. And after Stark finally left the room, Thomas passed the bill on a voice vote.

Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he was deeply disappointed about what happened because the bill had so much bipartisan support going into markup.

“My 11-year-old son is with me and frankly I’m embarrassed that he has to see this,” Portman said during the markup.

Capitol Police officials confirmed that officers were dispatched to the committee in response to a disturbance complaint but said no report was filed and did not reveal who made the call.

All of which led Pelosi to seek relief on the House floor. Her resolution would have declared that the bill was improperly reported out of committee.

The entire ordeal could have been averted had Thomas and Rangel agreed to Houghton’s deal, one Democratic aide said.

The agreement called for Thomas to admit wrongdoing, and agree to send the bill back to markup on Monday, the aide said.

The deal also called for Democrats to drop their resolution chastising Thomas and the GOP would put aside a counter resolution scolding Stark.

But, the source said, Thomas refused to sign off on the deal unless he could say on the floor that both sides acted wrongly.

Discussing the failed deal, Rangel said he wanted Thomas to say: “I made a mistake, it shouldn’t have happened, let’s get on with it.”

According to Rangel, Thomas wanted to state: “We all made mistakes.”

When asked about Rangel’s version of events, Thomas would only say, “There was no agreement.”

While Houghton was playing peacemaker, Hastert also worked behind the scenes all afternoon to reach a compromise and avoid a vote on the resolution, according to his spokesman John Feehery.

The resolution ultimately failed anyway and lawmakers on both sides insist that the chamber has not reached a new low in partisan rancor.

One well-placed Republican Member said the GOP is unlikely to take major steps to retaliate against the Democrats for the four-hour incident.

“This too shall pass,” the lawmaker said, adding that if Republicans responded in kind, “I don’t think the public would tolerate it.”

One senior Democratic aide said Republicans were in some ways as angered as the minority over what transpired. Because of that, the staffer said, Democrats do not believe Republicans will push too hard to get revenge.

“I think their leadership was totally [angry] at what Bill Thomas did,” the aide said.

“They wanted this to go away,” the aide added. “I don’t think they are going to retaliate against us.”

Feehery said revenge is not on the horizon and chalked the ordeal up to a frustrated minority trying to energize itself.

“It’s a tool for them,” he said. “They used it to increase party discipline. They blow everything out of proportion every chance they get.

“It’s a typical tactic of a minority party,” Feehery said, admitting Republicans did the same thing when Democrats had control.

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), who often presides over the chamber, said he believes the episode will blow over.

“When I’m in the chair, it’s important that both sides feel that they were treated fairly and it’s hard because obviously today one side feels they weren’t but I don’t think it’s a long-lasting thing,” he said Friday.

Democrats say they will respond to whatever the GOP does, but they expect to move on from the incident.

Asked whether Democrats were concerned the move would lead to an all-out assault from Republicans, Pelosi said: “Whatever.”

For his part, Thomas said the matter is dead: “All I’m going to say is there was a discussion and the House has spoken.”

Others on the committee, however, may not let it go so easily.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) said that he would object to the bill if it comes to the floor because he does not think it was properly vetted by the committee.