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Democrats Looking to Counter Abuse Charge

As Republicans continue to charge them with abusing their newfound power, House Democratic leaders plan to push back by arming rank-and-file Members with a message touting the majority’s bipartisan efforts in the chamber so far in the 110th Congress.

“Last November, Americans voted for change in the House, and Democrats are living up to that promise,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said via a spokeswoman. “We have made the House a more fair and civil institution, and we have worked in a bipartisan way in committees, in setting rules for debate and amendments, and on the floor. This document reviewing the past five months shows that we have indeed changed how business is done in the House while ensuring that the people’s business is conducted.”

Democratic leaders will present that message to rank-and-file Members in a three-page memorandum to be released today, a draft of which was obtained by Roll Call, that seeks to highlight bipartisan efforts at each stage of the legislative process, from committee action to the rule-making process to the House floor.

“It’s sort of a six-month overview of what we’ve been able to get done,” Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said Monday, and later added: “We want to show we’re keeping our promises.”

In particular, the New York lawmaker has sought to highlight the majority’s use of “open rules,” parameters for debate that allow the consideration of unlimited amendments on the House floor. A Democratic tally shows eight of the 43 rules approved through May 15 have been open, while the same period in 2005 — under GOP control — had just two open rules out of 29.

Democratic-provided statistics also count a total of 60 GOP-sponsored amendments made to date in 2007, although the then-GOP majority accepted 51 minority amendments in its 29 rules.

The Democratic message also emphasizes the Rules Committee’s effort to work “in the light of day,” citing the panel’s record of formulating rules before 8 p.m.

According to the document, the Democratic-led panel has issued eight rules after that hour, in comparison to 53 of the 111 rules issues during the 109th Congress.

“Such meeting and reporting hours made the Committee difficult to cover for most reporters, and made its sessions less accessible to Members of Congress,” a draft of the report asserts.

But Republicans have criticized those statistics as misleading and even inaccurate, arguing that among the open rules were “non-controversial” items, including several science measures, and citing requirements in some rules that amendments be pre-printed, and circumventing a “truly” open rule.

Brian Kennedy, spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), asserted Democrats also need to publicize the number of closed rules the House has approved in recent months.

“Most observers understand that Democrats have tried to legislate by decree. Congress has been anything but open or productive in 2007,” Kennedy said.

But the Democratic memorandum defends such pre-printing requirements, asserting the policy “actually further increases openness and transparency in the House by providing Members have sufficient time to read and understand the amendments being offered before having to vote on them.”

With regard to Republican complaints over her control of the panel, Slaughter said: “Maybe by comparison, they didn’t look so good. And maybe they feel the need to slow us up and complain about it.” In particular, she noted the demand for roll call votes on every action taken in her own committee.

Although Democrats have themselves raised grievances over the Republican minority’s use of one particular procedural tactic — the motion to recommit, a tool that allows the minority to offer a legislative alternative to a bill just prior to a vote on the House floor — that issue is not addressed in the draft document.

Aggravated over GOP success with the motions, Democratic leadership began mulling the question of how to alter House rules in late March to limit that procedure, and appeared ready to install those changes in mid-May. But Republican objections prompted a temporary truce on the issue before the Memorial Day recess.

“Whatever happens to motions to recommit will come from Rules,” Slaughter said, adding that she has yet to see a new proposal from Democratic leaders. “It’s a pretty sacrosanct thing that is privy to the minority.”

Prior to the Memorial Day recess, Hoyer stated he was compiling a “document” on the use of the procedure, but did not elaborate.

“Over the past five months, House Democrats have changed the way the House is run,” said Hoyer spokeswoman Stacey Farnen Bernards. “Our record shows that Democrats are striving to run the House in a more bipartisan fashion, while balancing that with the need to move the people’s agenda forward.”