Interparty tensions in the House remained at the boiling point Tuesday in the aftermath of last week’s Ways and Means Committee blowup, as Democrats awaited an apology from panel Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) that Republicans suggested isn’t likely to come.
Rather than moving toward a peaceful resolution of the matter — which came during what was expected to be a noncontroversial Ways and Means markup of a pension reform bill — both sides appeared to be digging in their heels.
Democrats remained furious that Thomas called the Capitol Police to kick minority party lawmakers out of a committee room, while Republicans accused Democrats of simply playing politics and ignoring the fact that Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) made obscene and allegedly threatening remarks toward Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.).
After Thomas huddled with GOP leaders and Ways and Means Republicans on Tuesday afternoon, sources said the chairman is expected to address the controversy this week on the House Floor, most likely today.
As of last night, the California lawmaker was still working out the substance of his remarks in what one aide called a ‘collaborative” process with a handful of key committee Republicans. Several Republican aides said it was highly unlikely that Thomas would give a full-fledged apology.
A Republican source who was in the room said Thomas was ‘contrite and emotional” in discussing the situation.
‘He seemed to understand that he had put the leadership and the Conference in a difficult position,” said the source, who added that leaders advised Thomas not to let Ways and Means ranking member Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and other Democrats provoke him in the future.
Hoping to head off more procedural shenanigans in the future, GOP leaders plan to have all House chairmen attend parliamentary tutorials on how to take lawmakers’ words down during panel hearings. Such a move on Friday might have allowed Thomas to sanction Stark without the situation escalating as it did.
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, are awaiting a move by Republicans — most likely a gesture from Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) — before deciding how best to respond to Friday’s events. Barring that, Democratic leadership aides said Tuesday the party will likely pursue some call for a formal investigation into what they believe was a misuse of Capitol Police.
But Republican leaders indicated that they were not much in the mood for concessions or negotiations, since they believe Hastert’s good-faith efforts to resolve the matter last week were spurned by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Whatever Thomas says, it won’t be the product of any interparty bargaining sessions.
‘She blew it,” a senior Republican leadership aide said of Pelosi. ‘She had no interest in negotiating at all [on Friday].”
Several senior Democratic sources said they will accept nothing less than an apology from Thomas and an agreement to return the bill to the Ways and Means Committee for reconsideration.
That conclusion was drawn after a closed-door session Pelosi held Tuesday morning with top-ranking Democrats to figure out the minority’s next move. The session came less than 24 hours after the Caucus met as a whole and decided to engage in a series of nuisance tactics in the final week before the August break.
According to well-placed sources, Democrats are starting to temper their planned response, which began late last week with the idea of filing an ethics complaint against Thomas. That plan has since been downgraded to having Ways and Means Democrats simply ask the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to investigate the facts leading up to the incident.
Democrats now are weighing three options, several sources said. In addition to asking the ethics committee to investigate, they are also considering asking Hastert to appoint a special bipartisan commission to investigate the incident or to use the House Administration panel to look into whether the Capitol Police were misused.
‘A number of people at the meeting thought [an ethics complaint] may not be the most effective thing to do,” said one top Democratic aide.
Pelosi, according to sources, told the Democratic Caucus on Monday night that if Democrats filed a formal ethics complaint, Republicans would go after her, not Stark.
‘She said, ‘Let them,’” said one aide who attended the Caucus.
Several Democratic leadership aides said the Caucus is banking on Hastert brokering some kind of a deal on his side of the aisle, rendering any type of ethics charge moot. Democrats would be willing to concede that Members acted inappropriately, including Stark.
‘We want an apology and a recognition that it was wrong,” said one senior Democratic aide. ‘We want it on the public record that it was inappropriate and unacceptable to call out the Capitol Police on Members.”
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said if Thomas was to apologize it would ‘certainly be appropriate,” but stressed the incident was not isolated but rather part of a pattern of GOP abuse against the minority party. He acknowledged Democratic leaders are eyeing their options beyond a week of tactical floor motions.
‘Friday is not gone and forgotten,” said Hoyer.
A senior Democratic aide said his party will not be satisfied unless Hastert can make a move to ensure the incident is not repeated in the future.
‘If there’s some sort of acknowledgement, we don’t necessarily need to pursue this,” said the aide.
Republicans, however, firmly believe that Democrats staged the Ways and Means walkout ahead of time as a way to get attention in the press.
One GOP Ways and Means member said Republicans believe Democrats have identified Thomas as a ‘vulnerable target” and would go after him the way they have previously with DeLay and ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
One top Democratic aide said there has been talk among Members about attempting to vilify Thomas, who often gets in hot water for his caustic behavior. But, the aide added, Democratic leaders have pressed Members to keep the matter focused on the Republican majority as a whole as to not divert attention away from the trampling of minority rights.
‘Yes, Bill Thomas is a bad guy, but he’s not the only one,” said the aide. ‘It’s not just about Bill Thomas.”
Hoyer, when asked what Democrats think of Thomas, said: ‘Mr. Thomas is a tough guy to work with. He’s a tough guy to work with for his own party and for us. He’s not about comity. He’s not about inclusion.”
Tensions between the two sides of the Ways and Means aisle predate last week’s blowup. Since Thomas became chairman of the panel in 2001, Democrats have complained that the Californian has severely limited their access to committee rooms — including the library, where Friday’s police incident took place — by denying them their own sets of keys and making them schedule most of their meetings through the GOP staff.
Thomas and his allies have countered that the chairman was a leading force in ensuring that Democrats on Ways and Means and on other committees got at least one-third of all panel funding. He also allowed the minority to fully control their own budget and to have their own Web site for the first time.