Democrats Rebuff Thomas’ Remorse

Posted July 23, 2003 at 6:23pm

Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) choked back tears on the House floor Wednesday as he apologized for calling Capitol Police officers to oust Democrats from a committee room on Friday, but Democratic leaders quickly declared that the words of contrition were not enough.

“I’m sympathetic,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who was one of the few Democrats who did not stand to applaud after the Thomas speech.

“But I was a little put off by his first sentence” in which he maintained that he summoned the officers to quell a disruption created by volatile Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), she said.

Democrats want more from Thomas than Wednesday’s acknowledgement that he exercised “poor judgment” last week. The chairman also promised a “rededication” to “strengthening” the institution.

Pelosi said Democrats want a new markup of the Portman-Cardin pension reform bill, a “correct” transcript of last week’s proceedings and the release of a police report on the incident. She also requested guidelines from Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) about when it is and is not appropriate to call the police on fellow Members.

She has requested a meeting with Hastert to discuss those issues, according to a leadership aide. “Then it’s over,” the aide said.

Thomas broke his silence Wednesday about last week’s markup with an apology that Republicans hope will end the ugly matter.

The saga began during a routine committee markup Friday morning, the events of which are still in dispute, and led to a lengthy and antagonistic floor debate embroiling the entire House that afternoon.

Democrats, who charged that they had not been given enough of a heads-up to review the legislation, left the markup and retreated to the committee library in order to plot strategy. They left Stark at the markup to try to stall the bill.

Democrats contend that Thomas improperly fetched the police to evict them from the committee library. They also griped that the chairman passed the bill over the objection of Stark.

Republicans have maintained that Stark made obscene and rude remarks and did not officially object in time. Furthermore, they claim the police were called to restore order to the contentious proceeding.

“In hindsight, calling the Sergeant-at-Arms for help in the committee room, I still believe was good judgment,” Thomas said Wednesday. “My instruction to use the Capitol Police, if necessary, in the library was not. As Members, you deserve better judgment from me, and you’ll get it.

“Because of my poor judgment, those outside the House who want to trivialize, marginalize and debase this institution were given an opportunity to do so,” he added. Thomas then pledged to be a better chairman.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), the Ways and Means ranking member who has an icy relationship with Thomas, delivered warm words after the chairman spoke.

Later in the day, however, Rangel said he had “no way to know” whether Thomas meant what he said.

As for whether they will be able to work out their differences, Rangel said in reference to the August recess, “I’ll have a month to think that over.”

Republicans maintain that Thomas stepped forward of his own accord and because he genuinely meant what he said.

Committee Republicans met with House GOP leaders Tuesday to discuss the situation, according to Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). But at no time did Hastert or anyone else put pressure on Thomas to say anything specific, Foley said.

“He didn’t want to be the issue,” Foley said, explaining why Thomas chose to speak.

“He’s a very sensitive person. It was a very difficult thing to do,” added Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), one of Thomas’ closest committee allies. “What he did today was completely of his own volition.”

Many Democrats were heartened by Thomas’ words and said they hope it fosters a new spirit of cooperation on the committee and in the House at large.

“He clearly humbled himself before this body and I appreciate his apology,” Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), a new member of the panel, said. “I would hope that some of the rancor on this committee will diminish.”

Democrats failed to pass a resolution admonishing Thomas for his actions last week. Rangel introduced another measure this week but said he will now drop it.

That should satisfy most Republicans, but one Member said he might pursue the matter further.

Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) bore the brunt of Stark’s insults last week, having been called a “fruitcake” by his colleague.

The comments were lobbed after McInnis told Stark to “shut up,” the Colorado Republican admits. But McInnis said that was in response to Stark calling Thomas an obscenity.

In light of that, McInnis said he would definitely file an ethics complaint against Stark if Democrats sought one against Thomas.

McInnis added that even if Democrats do not target Thomas, he may still file a complaint against Stark — noting that the Democratic has a history of uttering inappropriate remarks.

“He needs professional help,” McInnis charged. Stark’s office did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

A Democratic leadership aide said the party will decide how to respond “if in fact [McInnis] does file a complaint.”

Both parties have been observing an unofficial truce and have refrained from filing ethics complaints against one another during the past six years.

Thomas conceded his temper can be short, noting “as my mother would have put it, ‘When they were passing out moderation, you were hiding behind the door.”

But Democrats contend that neither Thomas nor Stark is the issue.

“One statement does not comity make,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. “The real issue is whether the House majority will begin to accord fair treatment to the minority, not just in the Ways and Means Committee, but in every committee and on the House floor.”

Despite Thomas’ emotional mea culpa, partisan tensions remain high.

While details were sketchy, several House aides witnessed a bitter exchange Wednesday between Reps. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) and Mel Watt (D-N.C.) on the chamber floor.

The dispute allegedly began during a contentious markup in the Financial Services Committee and continued on the floor. They had a “very heated” discussion that one source said seemed headed for a “fistfight.”

Miller, though, downplayed the altercation. “Mel and I were having a conversation,” Miller said, although he did acknowledge a serious difference of opinion with his Democratic colleague.

Watt’s office was not aware of any altercation involving their boss.

Erin P. Billings and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.