With Democrats outraged and crying foul, House GOP Leaders late Wednesday night reversed a decision made just hours earlier to eliminate one Democratic and Republican seat on the vaunted Ways and Means Committee.
Under pressure from Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who was lobbying for a smaller committee, the GOP Steering Committee decided in the early afternoon to reduce the panel’s size by one seat on each side of the aisle.
By the time Democrats got the news, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had already informed the Members she had chosen to fill the two open Democratic seats on the committee: Reps. Max Sandlin (Texas) and Stephanie Tubbs Jones (Ohio).
Pelosi and Democrats on Ways and Means, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus, immediately flew into action, sending out a press release decrying the Republicans’ move and claiming that it would deny the first black woman ever selected for the panel her seat. In reality, Democrats could have chosen either Tubbs Jones or Sandlin, but Sandlin was the more senior of the two.
Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) chocked up the decision and subsequent reversal, which allows the committee to maintain its current size, to a mistake of timing and communication.
“We gave Democrats numbers along with the ratios for the panel back in January,” he explained. “The ratios basically stay the same in the new year, but they felt it wasn’t fair to change the numbers now and we agreed.”
Tubbs Jones said she was gratified that she was able to retain the seat she had been told she had won just hours earlier.
“Somewhere in this process there was a miscommunication,” Tubbs Jones said. “I thank the leadership of Nancy Pelosi for standing up to it and I thank Hastert for playing fair. I also would like to thank the CBC for their work on my behalf.”
CBC Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) thanked Hastert and shook his hand in the Speaker’s Lobby after he was told that Republicans had reversed their decision and Tubbs Jones would get the seat after all.
“We in the CBC did not want to sit back and see one of our most brilliant and capable women be denied an opportunity the Democratic Party had given her,” Cummings said in an interview. “I’m very glad the Speaker made the decision he did. I agree with what Nancy Pelosi said in her speech about the Speaker. She said he is an honest man and I agree with that.”
Republican lawmakers and leadership aides were shocked that their leaders would back down so quickly and privately accused Democrats of “playing the race card,” something for which their party could not afford to be criticized in the wake of Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) fall from grace.
Some Republican lawmakers said the GOP leaders had not planned on eliminating the seats until they heard from Thomas earlier that day. “He just wore [the Steering Committee] out,” an aide conceded.
When the Steering Committee consented to the decision, GOP aides said, Hastert immediately said they needed to speak to Pelosi. Majority Leader Tom DeLay (D-Texas) called her several times and went to her office to deliver the news, but Pelosi was unavailable.