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Democrats Slam Sensenbrenner

For the second time in a month, House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) has outraged Democrats on his panel with what they described as heavy-handed tactics, but GOP aides countered that the minority was deliberately distorting the facts.

On Friday morning, Sensenbrenner suddenly ended a Democratic-called hearing on reauthorizing the USA PATRIOT Act, an anti-terrorism law enacted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. President Bush and GOP leaders have made permanent reauthorization of the legislation a top priority.

Some House Democrats, led by Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), ranking member on Judiciary, have complained that they have not been allowed to present witnesses who have concerns about reauthorizing expiring provisions of the act. Conyers used committee rules to force a hearing last week, but Sensenbrenner gave the minority just two days to put it together.

But after less than two hours of testimony on Friday morning, Sensenbrenner declared the hearing over. Several Democrats continued talking, however, and GOP staffers on the committee retaliated by turning off their microphones. When the Democrats still wouldn’t give up, the TV feed to C-SPAN was cut off, and then at least some of the lights in the hearing room were turned off.

James Zogby of the Arab American Institute, one of the witnesses at the hearing, said he was stunned by the display of partisan rancor.

“I have never seen anything like this happen,” said Zogby. Zogby claimed that “it was obvious that [Sensenbrenner] didn’t like any of the Democratic Members” on Judiciary, and clearly wasn’t pleased the hearing was taking place at all.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) slammed Sensenbrenner for his handling of the hearing in a statement released Friday. She urged Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to make Sensenbrenner apologize to Democrats for his “shameful behavior” on Friday.

“This incident is the latest in a series of disgraceful conduct by Mr. Sensenbrenner,” Pelosi said. “Last month, he misused an official committee report to mischaracterize in a derogatory manner amendments offered by three Democrats. As a result, the House was required to authorize the filing of a supplemental report, which contained significant changes, to correct the record.”

Pelosi was referring to language used recently by Judiciary Committee majority staff to describe two amendments offered by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) to the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act. The committee report described the amendments as an exemption for “sexual predators” from the bill. After Democrats and some Republicans complained, the language was revised.

Pelosi added that she was going to seek Hastert’s help in reining in Sensenbrenner: “As House Democratic Leader, I expect all Members to be treated by the majority with dignity and respect. I will ask Speaker Hastert to order Mr. Sensenbrenner to apologize for his behavior to the witnesses at the hearing today, and to promise this will never happen again.”

But Jeff Lungren, communications director for the Judiciary Committee, said Democrats were deliberately misrepresenting the facts on Friday’s incident to make his boss look bad.

Lungren pointed out that this was the 12th hearing the Judiciary Committee had held of reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act, and that Democrats excluded anyone from the Bush administration who supported the legislation from testifying at Friday’s session.

Instead, Lungren noted, Democrats called on Chip Pitts, chairman of the board of Amnesty International, to testify. Amnesty International recently called the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a new “gulag,” a statement that infuriated the White House and GOP Congressional leaders.

Lungren said the Democrats got nearly two hours for their hearing, which was as long as Sensenbrenner allowed senior Justice Department officials to appear before the panel earlier in the week in support of the bill.

“The hearing was over, so all the chit-chat going on in the [hearing] room was not part of the record,” said Lungren of the microphones being shut off. Lungren said that several Democrats had tried to turn the entire session into an “open mike night” to bash the Bush administration for its handling of the war on terror.

Lungren added: “Were they silenced? No. The hearing was over. If they want to continue a press conference, that’s perfectly within their rights. There’s the House Radio and TV Gallery for that.”

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