Truant Members Irk GOP

Posted September 9, 2003 at 6:21pm

Recognizing that their 11-seat majority is too narrow to withstand widespread absenteeism, House Republican leaders have become increasingly concerned with making sure lawmakers are present and accounted for when the House is in session.

On Friday, just a few days after returning from recess, more than a dozen GOP lawmakers were absent, forcing the leadership to twist arms on a pair of pivotal school voucher votes and postpone final consideration of two appropriations bills.

Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) raised the issue at last week’s Republican Conference meeting and will likely do so again at today’s gathering. He and other leaders may also explore ways to penalize Members who regularly leave when there is work to be done.

“Members who consistently stay in town have expressed their frustration and have talked to Mr. Blunt about whether the rules of the Conference could be changed to make it harder for Members to miss votes,” said Blunt spokeswoman Burson Taylor, adding that there are not yet any concrete proposals.

While there are nearly always a few lawmakers away on any given legislative day, Friday’s session was particularly problematic for GOP leaders.

The House was originally scheduled to vote on final passage of two appropriations bills — one for the District of Columbia and one for Transportation, Treasury, Postal Service and general government. But GOP leaders postponed the votes until this week because too many Republicans were absent to ensure passage.

And they barely got their way on two other votes. A leadership-backed voucher amendment sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) passed Friday afternoon 205-203, with 13 Republicans not voting, while an amendment by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) ended up failing in a tie, 203-203, with 16 GOP lawmakers not voting.

Republican leaders — who were helped by the fact that about a dozen Democrats were also not present — had to twist arms and keep both votes open in order to achieve the desired result.

Many of the GOP Members who didn’t show up had good reasons. For example, Rep. Don Young (Alaska) had previously informed the leadership that he would be in his home state all week, Rep. John Sullivan (Okla.) was attending a memorial service for his former mentor and football coach, and Rep. Cass Ballenger (N.C.) had to go to the quarterly meeting of a manufacturing company he founded and of which he is chairman of the board.

But even though they all gave advance notice, the absences were enough for Blunt to make remarks at last week’s Conference meeting that some sources described as heavily sarcastic.

“We just had five weeks off and we worked for two days, and people can’t stay?” said one leadership aide, summing up the feelings of Blunt and other leaders.

Missed votes are nothing new, and it is not clear what measures GOP leaders can really take to prevent them from happening in the future.

“This has been a problem forever,” said a senior Republican leadership aide. “We will of course remind our Members how important it is that they be here, but cracking down? What are we going to do?”