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Hoyer OKs Some Held-Open Votes

Just as Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) prepares to introduce a bill to fight GOP abuses of power, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) conceded Tuesday that there might be circumstances in which a Democratic majority would have to hold open votes.

Hoyer, speaking at his regular briefing with reporters, said he doesn’t believe Democrats were corrupt, as minority Republicans charged in the early 1990s, when they held open votes for “10, 15 minutes” beyond the 15-minute minimum time frame called for under the House rules. But what does border on being corrupt, he said, is the practice of holding open a vote to change the outcome of a bill — and he blamed Republicans for doing just that.

“I would call a corrupt act leaving the ballot open for so long that obviously the only thing that is happening is the subversion of the will of the Members and forcing them in effect to vote the way you want,” Hoyer said.

Hoyer tried to draw a distinction between giving Members enough time to get to the floor to participate, and keeping votes open indefinitely to achieve a desired outcome. Hoyer cited the example of extending votes when Members are returning from a White House meeting.

“I never thought the fact [then Speaker] Jim Wright held the ballot open for 10,15 minutes was a corrupt practice,” Hoyer said. Later, he reiterated, “I don’t believe that keeping the ballot open for10 minutes extra is a corrupt practice.”

This acknowledgement, however, comes on the heels of sharp criticism by Democrats that majority Republicans have been engaging in an “abuse of power” by holding open key votes to achieve a certain outcome. Because House rules set a minimum time frame for votes but not a maximum, Democrats are not charging the GOP with violations of the rules or ethical violations. But they say that such held-open votes are an unfair practice and amount to an unacceptable exercise of power.

Hoyer himself has attacked Republicans for the way they run the House, and did so again on Tuesday when he circulated a list of five “abuse of power” votes this Congress in which the GOP has held open the balloting from between 26 minutes and three hours.

Republicans have consistently countered that they are running the House no differently than the then-majority Democrats, who they charge routinely held open votes for their advantage.

Burson Taylor, spokesman for Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), said: “We are glad that Mr. Hoyer agrees the majority party controls the floor and under House rules has the right to open and close votes. Fortunately, the Minority Whip won’t have to worry about making those decisions for a long time.”

John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said Republicans have treated Democrats better than they were treated, citing working relationships between Members and greater minority staff ratios.

“We’ve treated them so much fairer than they ever treated us,” Feehery said. “This isn’t about being treated fairly, this is about them trying to impose their extreme left-wing agenda, and we’re not going to follow an extreme left-wing agenda.”

But Hoyer said Republican hypocrisy over held-open votes is what most troubles him. He said that while in the minority, the GOP accused the Democrats of being “corrupt” when they kept votes open and now are mirroring that practice.

Hoyer stressed that he is one Democrat who has not accused Republicans of corruption, although he said Tuesday that last November’s three-hour vote on Medicare was “bordering” on it. As recently as last week, Democrats cried foul when the Republicans held open for 38 minutes a vote on an amendment to the Patriot Act.

Hoyer “thinks what they are doing is wrong,” a Hoyer aide later explained. “He thinks there is an abuse of power, but for practical reasons doesn’t believe you can say that every single vote will be cut off at 17 minutes.”

Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have gone on the offensive over open votes and have since put out a non-binding minority bill of rights that says votes should be completed within 17 minutes, and that votes should not be held open “in order to manipulate the outcome.” Pelosi has said she intends to abide by the rights doctrine if in the majority.

Pelosi’s spokesman Brendan Daly said the Minority Leader agrees with Hoyer that votes could be extended to allow Members time to get to the floor, but not to try to change the outcome of a vote.

In the meantime, Meehan and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) each announced plans to introduce bills to ensure minority floor rights. Meehan’s bill, to be unveiled today, seeks greater minority input and includes a provision to “block the majority from extending votes indefinitely.”

Under Meehan’s legislation, the time allowed for votes will be extended to a maximum of 30 minutes, from the current minimum of 15. Meehan was one of the chief sponsors of the law enacted as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

Matt Vogel, Meehan’s spokesman, said his boss’ bill would allow for “what Hoyer is talking about” because it would give enough flexibility for Members to cast votes, but would not allow abuses.

“The whole idea is to promote democracy and fairness, not to [smother] it,” Vogel said. “The bottom line is to have some sense of the rule of law.”