GOP Tries to Press Its Case Over Floor Imbroglio

Posted May 14, 2008 at 11:03am

Republicans pressed their accusation Wednesday that Democrats had intentionally abused the rules of the House during a floor incident last summer. But Democratic lawmakers, who have rejected that allegation, continued to shrug off the affair as a singular mistake, even as Members moved to ensure the offense is not repeated.

During the second and final day of public hearings before a select committee established to investigate the incident, GOP lawmakers again pressed witnesses — including floor staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) — to demonstrate that Democratic leaders pressured their own presiding officer into mishandling the vote.

“We really believe the evidence supports our conclusion,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), ranking member of the Select Committee to Investigate the Voting Irregularities of Aug. 2, 2007. Pence said he hopes Democrats on the panel will ultimately agree to recommend a censure of their leadership.

But Democrats reiterated testimony from Tuesday’s hearing and an earlier apology by Rep. Mike McNulty (D-N.Y.) — who was the presiding officer during the disputed floor vote and shouldered the blame for the incident, in which he prematurely announced a vote tally and prompted chaos in the House chamber.

“I don’t think there’s a question of culpability, other than a mistake Mr. McNulty admitted,” said Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.), who led much of the Democrats’ questioning over the two days of hearings.

The incident occurred during a vote on a GOP- authored amendment to an Agriculture spending bill that would have prohibited illegal immigrants from accessing certain federally funded programs.

Republicans alleged that the Democratic majority mishandled the vote, resulting in the defeat of the measure. GOP leaders assert that McNulty’s announcement of a 214-214 tie — defeating the amendment — was inaccurate and that the motion had, in fact, passed 215-213 as Republicans changed their votes.

Democrats dispute that version of events, however, noting that their own Members were changing votes on the House floor, resulting in the final tally of 212-216.

Republicans expressed frustration Wednesday with Pelosi floor aide Catlin O’Neill, who has repeatedly told panel investigators she does not recall specific exchanges on the House floor — including interactions with McNulty and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who has acknowledged that he called to close the vote under dispute.

“Quite frankly, I find the lack of recollection breathtaking,” Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) asserted. Republicans repeatedly played video of the House floor vote to illustrate their thesis, highlighting interactions between O’Neill, McNulty and Hoyer, although no individual voices are distinguishable on the accompanying soundtrack.

“I know I never told the presiding officer to close the vote,” O’Neill testified, and later said that she was surprised when the vote was gaveled shut.

Pelosi’s Director of Floor Operations Jerry Hartz also denied Republican assertions that Democrats planned to cut off the vote immediately after the Speaker cast her ballot, which tied the vote at 214-214.

“This was a really chaotic moment in time. … To assume that’s all that coordinated … . That kind of precision is hard to execute,” Hartz said.

But Republicans asserted that Democratic leadership nonetheless remains responsible for the bungled vote.

“I think what came into high relief today is the part of the story that doesn’t add up,” Pence said after the hearing.

The select committee will now move toward completing its final report, including recommendations to prevent similar incidents in the future. The paper is due Sept. 15, but Pence said he expects it could be done as early as this summer.

Despite lingering divisions over the facts of the incident, Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), the panel’s chairman, said he expects the committee will be able to come to agreement on efforts to improve the voting process.

“I’m not going to surrender to pessimism here,” Delahunt said. “We can achieve a final report that is not just a good product but adds considerably to the climate in the House.”

In particular, Members are expected to recommend the elimination of a signature Democratic rules change that had been intended to end the practice of prolonging floor votes specifically to affect their outcome.

McNulty asserted that his fixation on obeying the rule prompted his decision to gavel the August vote shut, while both Democrats and Republicans have agreed the rule is too nebulous to effectively enforce.

“It’s also clear to me clause 2(a) of Rule XX is deeply flawed and needs to be reconsidered,” Pence said. Nonetheless, Republicans rejected McNulty’s assertions that it was the rule itself that prompted his actions, rather than instructions from Democratic leadership.

“If he said that, I think it’s rather a stretch,” said Jay Pierson, Boehner’s floor assistant.

In addition, Delahunt said the panel would review the practice of putting the word “final” on electronic voting boards in the House chamber — which prompted confusion during the disputed vote as numbers continued to change — asserting it is unnecessary. Members may also consider including a “tally slip,” an official count of the vote provided by the Parliamentarian’s staff, in House rules governing the conduct of a vote.