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Democrats Protest Closed Rules in the House

Just three months into the 108th Congress, House Democrats are already reaching the height of frustration with the GOP majority and are putting in place a long-term strategy to hit back at Republicans for muzzling their views.

From the types of rules allowing bill consideration to choosing the rooms where the Democrats caucus, the minority party says Republicans have reached an ultimate low.

“At a certain point, the dictator clamps down on the screws more and more tightly and people finally rebel,” said a senior Democratic aide.

Democrats acknowledge they lack the numbers to stymie a powerful majority, and instead plan to ramp up their public criticism of the GOP and will capitalize on their stalling strategies, which range from minority motions and exchanges on the floor to slow the process.

“We are going to continue to raise the issue on the floor and publicly every time that they grant closed rules or highly restrictive rules,” vowed Rules ranking member Martin Frost (D-Texas). “We’re not going to just go quietly in the night.”

Frost is leading the charge in the Rules Committee, having just issued a “Dear Colleague” to Democratic Members on the topic. In the letter, Frost charged that the number of open rules dropped from 45 percent to 28 percent in the last three sessions of Republican control.

“It’s not like we haven’t stood up for minority rights in the past — there’s no question,” said the senior Democratic staffer. “But it is a much more organized and long-range campaign than we’ve done before.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) is also working on a strategy to put Democrats squarely on the offensive. He is already restructuring the Democratic parliamentary team, and is adding three new Members to the group — Reps. Robert Andrews (N.J.), Lloyd Doggett (Texas) and Barney Frank (Mass.).

The group will begin meeting this week on new tactics for tackling the Republican shutout of Democratic ideas, according to Hoyer spokeswoman Stacey Farnen.

“The parliamentary team within the whip operation is going to be the leader on strategy for the most effective action to counteract unfair procedures and practices by the Republican majority,” Farnen said.

Democrats are also concerned about a lack of a consistent space for the party to meet weekly. Earlier this year, Democrats lost their regular spot in Room 345 of the Cannon House Office Building to hold their Caucus meeting each week. And last week, Democrats were forced to meet on the House floor.

“Our minority status in the House should not infringe on our ability to caucus as frequently as we deem necessary, and it would be an appreciated show of respect by the Majority to provide a reliable location to House Democrats,” Democratic leaders wrote in a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Republicans, however, say the Democratic claims — from meeting space to unfair rules — are groundless.

“We try to treat them with civility, even thought it’s not often returned,” said Stuart Roy, spokesman for Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Roy said the Republicans often shuffle their own caucus space as well, and go out of their way to ensure Democrats get a voice on key legislation. As for open rules that would give Democrats an opportunity to vote on alternatives to GOP bills, Roy said Republicans “try to offer them as much as possible.”

“While they may do some Enron accounting to come up with their numbers, we offer them much more ability to offer their ideas to the floor than they offered Republicans when we were in the minority,” he said.

But Frost said what the majority has been getting away with is much worse than what Democrats imposed while they were in charge almost a decade ago. Frost and other Rules Democrats fought back last week during the rules meeting on the medical malpractice bill, stalling final action by calling for 22 recorded votes.

“Even more so than in the past, the Republican leadership repeatedly blocks votes on alternatives to their extremist agenda,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said the minority party has to take advantage of the small arsenal it has before it. Whether it’s floor tactics, or going directly to the American public, Menendez said Democrats will not sit idle.

“We are going to have to use the full expanse of our abilities to try to stop the Republican oppression,” he said.

Frost said Democrats have little leverage in the Rules Committee, but will “protest long and loud” when Republicans deny alternatives on bills and holding 11th-hour rules meetings late at night or early in the morning. He pointed to the latest example of medical malpractice legislation in which Democrats weren’t able to offer substitute legislation.

“As far as I can tell this is the way they are going to run the House the rest of this year,” Frost said. “Democrats are mad about it, and we’re going to continue to press those issues.”

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