CHC Revolts Over Leadership Snubs

Posted November 9, 2007 at 6:43pm

Long-simmering frustrations within the Congressional Hispanic Caucus reached a crescendo on the House floor Friday, as Members staged a fiery confrontation with Democratic leaders and threatened to sink key tax legislation.

Prompted by a late Thursday night vote that effectively would curb federal workplace protections for non-English speakers — a proposal that CHC members have derided as an “English-only” initiative — the 20-member caucus moved to derail a major tax reform bill.

“We’re not going to stand for it,” said CHC Chairman Joe Baca (D-Calif.), who said Democratic leaders must commit to addressing the concerns of the Hispanic caucus. “We’re tired of the hate. There is so much hate and racism that is coming out.”

As the House moved to approve parameters for debate on the alternative minimum tax measure, CHC lawmakers voted against the rule — and, with Republicans opposed to the bill, nearly blocked the measure from reaching the House floor — before ultimately switching their votes to allow the rule to pass.

During the vote, Baca could be seen on the House floor involved in an animated conversation with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Although the exchange was not audible, one Hispanic Democrat who observed the discussion described the incident on the condition that he not be identified.

“It got pretty heated,” said the lawmaker. “People were turning red.”

According to the lawmaker, at one point, Hoyer stood precariously close to the CHC chairman — towering over his smaller colleague — and shouted: “How dare you destroy this party! This will be the biggest loss in the last 10 years.”

Baca allegedly retorted: “And we’re going to keep doing it until you guys get it!”

During the exchange, Pelosi also raised her voice, pointing to the electronic board that displays the current vote tally and stating “at the top of her lungs”: “You see this up on the board? This is against me personally!”

At a press conference Friday afternoon, Pelosi demurred when asked about the conversation, stating: “I told them to pay attention to what Mr. Hoyer was telling them about what was going on on the floor.”

Hoyer remained mute on the subject during the press conference but in a separate interview said: “The Hispanic Caucus was justifiably angry about the vote on the English-only.”

The Maryland lawmaker added that during his tenure as chairman of the Helsinki Commission, the ability of people to speak a language other than the main national language in other countries was considered “a human right.”

He also described his request for CHC members to alter their votes as an “emphatic ‘please.’”

Although the House approved the rule allowing the tax reform measure to move to the floor, CHC members further delayed the process by moving to adjourn the House and forcing another tense vote.

According to a CHC estimate, the tally came within three votes of forcing the House to adjourn for the week — leaving the tax measure unfinished — before Members once again switched their votes to oppose the motion and keep the chamber in session.

“When they were so angry, we knew we had made our point,” the Hispanic Democrat said of House leadership’s reaction to the CHC strategy.

While the Thursday vote prompted the rebellion last week, CHC members cited a host of reasons for the actions, including their exclusion from negotiations over the children’s health insurance bill — particularly the removal of a provision to include the children of legal immigrants in the program — as well as Democratic leaders’ policy of allowing Members to vote in support of numerous immigration-related motions offered by the Republican minority.

In addition, many CHC members expressed anger that Hoyer did not condemn an enforcement-only immigration bill introduced by freshman Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) last week, and they noted the House failed to take up comprehensive immigration reform earlier this year after the Senate refused to do the same.

“This frustration has been building for six or seven months,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the CHC’s first vice chairman. “We’re just saying there’s a level of respect that needs to be extended.”

Members complained that Democratic leaders did not attempt to inform lawmakers Thursday about the content of the vote, which instructed conferees to the fiscal 2008 Commerce, Justice and science appropriations bill to adhere to Senate language restricting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from prosecuting employers for alleged discrimination against non-English-speaking employees.

An attempt to insert similar language in the House version of the bill failed earlier this year, but on Thursday the motion passed, 218-186, with 36 Democrats in support.

“I think we need to have better teamwork,” said Baca, who said Hispanics felt blindsided by the vote. “They need to have better control.”

In a letter to House appropriators on Friday, Baca, along with Reps. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), urged the conferees to ignore the instruction.

Several CHC members said Democratic leaders offered no assurances about pending or future legislation following the dispute, however, but said they expect the incident will produce changes in leadership’s treatment of the caucus.

“We hope as a consequence … we will sit down and talk — a full, frank and open discussion,” Grijalva said.

But the Democratic Hispanic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said some Members would like to see specific assurances, such as a guarantee that leadership will whip Democrats on specific votes like those on “English-only” proposals.

“There should be a blanket understanding in the party that if certain things come up, don’t do it,” the lawmaker said.

In addition, Baca said the protest sends “a strong message to the Shuler bill and any other anti-immigrant bill that comes out.” He added that any immigration package that moves in the House should be a comprehensive measure that addresses the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the country, rather than focusing solely on enforcement.

Baca asked, “What are you going to do with the 12 million people who are here now?”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.