No ‘Kumbaya’ on Rules Panel

Posted January 24, 2007 at 6:58pm

Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) has little sympathy for House Republicans these days. The 11-term lawmaker — and the first woman to lead the exclusive Rules panel — thinks Republicans have a lot of nerve complaining about how the House has been run in the first three weeks of the new Democratic majority.

“The four of us took more abuse per square inch than anybody in this House,” Slaughter said in an interview Wednesday, referring to her time on the Rules Committee in the minority with Reps. Jim McGovern (Mass.), Alcee Hastings (Fla.) and Doris Matsui (Calif.).

In particular, there is little love lost between Slaughter and her Republican counterpart, Rules ranking member David Dreier (Calif.), and that relationship has set the tone for a number of heated battles both in committee and on the House floor in the first days of the 110th Congress.

The sour personal relationship between Slaughter and Dreier is not lost on their colleagues.

“Louise and David, in many ways, are similar to the Hatfields and the McCoys,” Hastings observed, referencing the famous feuding families. “They both know what they are doing and they both know how to attempt to get under each other’s skin.”

But Hastings cautioned that partisan fights are nothing new on the panel. “It’s the nature of the Rules Committee,” he said. “This is a partisan place. All this talk of Kumbaya and holding hands — it ain’t gonna happen.”

In December, Slaughter summed up her estimation of Dreier in her local paper. “He’s a prick,” she told the Rochester City News. Asked Wednesday again to describe her relationship with Dreier, Slaughter demurred.

“I respect all of my colleagues, they all got elected the same way I did,” she said. “My resentment so much when we were in the minority is that they shut us out of the debate as well as half the people in the United States.”

Dreier spoke similarly of Slaughter.

“I’m a proud institutionalist and I have great respect for all of my colleagues,” Dreier said in an interview Wednesday. “And I have great respect for Louise Slaughter as the first woman to chair the committee. I respect that. I revere that.”

Yet Dreier, who chaired the committee from January 1999 until Republicans lost the majority in November, has long been the target of Democratic ire. Now that Democrats have taken the gavels, it is difficult for some Members to conceal their joy.

“I enjoy our banter and I can suggest to him that being in the minority is going to be a very long two years for you,” Hastings quipped to Dreier earlier this month during floor debate on the Rules package.

One of the most skilled Members on the rules and procedures of the House, Dreier helped steer much of the GOP’s legislative accomplishments in recent years. As chairman of what is informally known as the “Speaker’s Committee,” Dreier was a confidant of then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and viewed by Democrats as part of the GOP leadership they fought so hard against. “I’ve been taking attacks for years,” he acknowledged.

Despite recent commitments for civility and comity, Democrats are unlikely to forget anytime soon how often they were denied in committee.

“I observed that the minority is complaining about the fact that this approach has not been sufficiently bipartisan,” Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) said to Dreier during a recent floor debate on the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel. “As I recall, during the 10 years that the Democrats were in the minority, or more, I asked the Rules Committee almost 100 times to make specific proposals in order. The last time I checked, the record demonstrated that they had made them in order exactly two times.”

In the first three weeks of the Congress, Dreier and his fellow Rules members and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) have waged a number of procedural fights to protest nearly everything the Democrats have moved on the floor, including their legislation in the ‘100 hours’ agenda and two additional bills this week on Member pensions and Delegate voting rights.

They have failed in all of their attempts — nothing new to the minority party in the House — but the GOP is expected to strategically use process fights as a platform to distinguish themselves this Congress.

Democrats have countered that Republicans are sour grapes and need to save the fight for when it really matters.

“The Republicans protest too much right now,” said former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who served as Rules ranking member prior to Slaughter. “They need to save their ammunition.”

Frost said that the chairman of the Rules panel is restrained in many ways. “Whoever is the chair reflects the wishes of the Speaker,” he said, “You are not a free agent, and depending on your personality you have the ability to influence the leader of the party.”

Frost acknowledged that Dreier and Slaughter have butted heads in the past and will likely continue into the future.

“Dreier is certainly not easy to deal with — that doesn’t mean he’s a bad person, I kind of like Dreier. There just wasn’t a lot of give,” Frost observed, “Louise is a different person. I think Louise was and is a little more impatient to Dreier’s impervious attitude. Dreier is a very difficult person to work with, and you never get the feeling he is ever going to do anything for you. You get the impression that he is scripted all the time and you can’t get past the facade.”

Dreier said Wednesday that he has instructed his aides to assist the incoming majority staff any way they can. “I am determined to do everything in my power to make sure the Rules Committee works as effectively as possible,” he said.

Dreier’s role will change significantly as many Republicans — many of whom have never served in the minority — rely on his experience to wage legislative battles as the loyal opposition.

“Holding people accountable is something I enjoy doing,” Dreier said, acknowledging that he does not shy away from debate. “Am I getting pleasure out of this? Well, there’s very little I don’t have a good time doing,” he said.

Slaughter said Wednesday that despite lingering wounds from the previous Congress, she would be able to work well with Republicans. “Yes,” she said. “Why? Because I’ve got nine votes and they’ve got four.”