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Stifled Debate

Practically everyone agrees that the Iraq War is the top issue on America’s agenda. So, it’s unfortunate that Democrats running the House have decided to block full, robust debates on the conflict.

Although much of the media blamed the Republican minority for blocking a Senate debate last week, the Democratic leadership that refused to allow GOP Senators a vote on their preferred war resolution holds a major share of the responsibility for inaction. The move caused Republicans to make use of long-established Senate rules to filibuster and end debate — for now, but Democrats clearly acted out of concern that the GOP measure would pass and muddy the waters for their preferred resolution disapproving of President Bush’s troop escalation.

In the House, Democratic leaders have violated their oft-stated promise — made when they were in the minority — to allow open rules and full debate on legislation if they took control of the chamber. After first indicating last week that Republicans could offer an alternative war resolution, Democrats changed their minds and pushed through a closed rule allowing Republicans only to offer a motion to recommit the Democratic measure to the International Relations Committee.

House Democrats contend that closed rules were the norm when Republicans held sway over the chamber, and that’s certainly true. But Democrats loudly protested the custom and swore it would go away when they took power. But no sooner was Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sworn in as Speaker than the Democrats commenced their “100 hour” opening legislative blitz under closed rules. They’re doing it again on the Iraq issue.

Democrats also complain that when they do permit an open rule, as they did last week on an energy research bill, Republicans misuse it. And Republicans certainly did use it to make cheap political points over Pelosi’s request for an Air Force jet that could fly her nonstop to California.

On and off the House floor, Republicans charged — with thin evidence — that Pelosi wanted to commandeer Air Force 2 or the jet used to ferry members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and they claimed she wanted to transport political supporters and routinely give rides home to other California Democrats.

There’s no question that Pelosi handled the GOP allegations badly, intimating that the Pentagon was being sexist in quibbling over nonstop service and unleashing Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, to threaten reprisals. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow had it right when he dubbed the controversy “a silly story.”

Both parties, in both chambers, will use procedure to embarrass their adversaries, set up politically difficult votes and lay down markers. It’s all part of the legislative process and the political process. You could say that when majorities use procedure to stifle minorities, that’s part of the process, too. But it’s part of what makes American politics so bitter and partisan — at a time, politicians all say, when voters have made it clear they want the parties to work together.

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