Parties Gauge Fallout From Controversial Vote

Posted July 9, 2004 at 6:58pm

As Democrats continued to protest the GOP’s tactics during Thursday’s prolonged floor vote on a Patriot Act-related appropriations amendment, Republicans were engaged in an internal debate about whether they could have averted the controversy by handling the measure differently.

The amendment to the Commerce, Justice, State and the judiciary spending bill, proposed by Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would have prevented the Justice Department from accessing bookstore and library records. The amendment failed on a 210-210 tie — but only after the roll call was held open for more than 30 minutes and several Republicans were persuaded to change their votes.

As it has several times in recent years, the GOP’s decision to hold the vote open angered Democrats. In this case, though, it also left some Republicans wondering whether they should have seen the vote coming and prepared better for it, or just let the amendment pass and simply take it out in conference with the Senate.

One Republican leadership aide who disagreed with the decision argued that it “brought unnecessary attention” to a politically sensitive issue.

“To take 40 minutes to flip the vote [and] what do you gain? You gain nothing,” the aide said.

GOP lawmakers on both sides of the issue said they had not expected Sanders’ amendment to draw so much support.

“It was something of a surprise to us, because it wasn’t a whipped vote,” said Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), a member of Appropriations who voted against the measure. “Many of us were just sort of stunned.”

Some Republican Members and aides said the issue should have been handled the way such situations usually are when the House approves a bill opposed by leadership or the White House.

“We could have fixed the damn thing in conference,” an Appropriations aide said.

But Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the CJS subcommittee, said that relying on a conference to remove the provision would have been too risky, given the increasing likelihood that the measure will be rolled into an omnibus package later this year. Another problem was that the Senate bill could well contain the same language.

Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) agreed that waiting until conference was not a viable option, especially since the Bush administration is staunchly opposed to Sanders’ proposal.

“The president issued a veto threat, so absolutely, we had to defeat it,” Cantor said.

In general, the GOP whip operation rarely mobilizes on amendments to appropriations bills, since their number and contents are usually difficult to predict ahead of time.

In the case of the Sanders amendment, the Justice Department did try to ensure defeat by issuing a letter emphasizing the usefulness of accessing bookstore and library records in combating terrorism.

Republican aides said some of the Members who switched their votes did so after being shown the Justice letter on the floor, though Wolf suggested that the administration could have helped its own cause by circulating the letter much earlier.

“That never got out fast enough,” Wolf said.

Meanwhile, House Democrats forced a number of procedural votes Friday to protest Thursday’s events and promised to continue to fight Republicans over their management of the House.

Reps. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) each said they would bring up bills as early as next week to try to reverse what they call an abuse of power by the GOP majority. The two Democratic measures are separate, but both offices indicated that they would be talking about joining efforts.

Meehan’s measure seeks to institute the same reforms proposed by the GOP in the early 1990s, when the then-Republican minority argued the Democrats were trampling on their rights. Maloney’s bill, meanwhile, seeks to remedy specific matters that have arisen during the 108th Congress.

“From the preponderance of closed rules to the pre-dawn vote on the Medicare prescription drug bill, the House leadership has abused the power of its slim majority to shun bipartisan cooperation and ram top agenda items through with little true deliberation,” Meehan said.

“How many more abuses must there be before we say enough is enough?” Maloney said in a “Dear Colleague” letter Friday.

Democrats have been complaining for months about the way Republicans run the House, arguing that the GOP holds open votes to ensure victory, prevents Democrats from participating in conference committees and bars minority amendments to GOP bills.

Both Meehan and Maloney said they would propose similar legislation if elected to the majority this November.

Republicans have repeatedly countered Democratic charges by arguing that their tactics are similar to those used by Democrats when they were in the majority. They add that Democrats have seized on procedural complaints instead of proposing a substantive policy agenda.