WASHINGTON – House Democrats have declared war on the Republican leadership, vowing to gum up the legislative process in retaliation for what they say is systematic and unfair treatment by the majority.
“Our bag of tricks is somewhat small, but we will continue to use it,” said Stacey Farnen, spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (search), D-Md. “There are some more dramatic ways we can express ourselves.”
Unlike their counterparts in the Senate, where Democrats have successfully filibustered the president’s nomination of Miguel Estrada (search) to the federal bench, House rules give the minority party less leeway in fighting the majority’s agenda. So House Democrats are embarking on procedural warfare.
They began by helping to defeat two non-controversial suspension bills on June 3, as payback for what they called GOP sabotage of the child tax credit expansion in early June. The Democrats accused the Republicans of later passing their own version of the tax credit — knowing it might languish in conference committee — without allowing a Democratic alternative.
“Mr. Speaker, this is one of the most cynical, arrogant displays of power that I have ever witnessed in this House,” Hoyer charged during a June 12 debate on the GOP proposal.
Republicans say the Democrats are whining because they simply don’t like being in the minority — and unlike the entire 1980s and early 1990s, they are not in control of the agenda in the House of Representatives.
“They don’t like being in the minority, that much is clear,” said Jo Maney, spokeswoman for Rep. David Dreier (search), R-Calif., who is chairman of the Rules Committee. “We didn’t like being in the minority, either. That’s why we fought so hard to be in the majority.”
There are currently 229 Republicans to 205 Democrats, and one independent, in the House.
Republican aides said the GOP leadership has treated the Democrats more fairly than the Republicans were treated a decade ago.
“I think the frustration is they often lose and they are striking out against us,” said Jonathan Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. “We faced that situation when we were in the minority, and yes, we tried to sabotage the process. But that always has a limited success rate.”
Hoyer and Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., nonetheless brought their complaints to a hearing of the Rules Committee on Monday, where they blasted the Republican leadership for what they said was a continued pattern of blocking Democratic substitute bills, amendments and debate.
The Democrats adamantly oppose a proposal that would extend the weekly calendar for non-controversial suspension bills, which they say take up too much time and are another way for the leadership to stifle debate on more important issues.
“There’s a conscious pattern here of insulating the majority from having to vote for difficult issues,” charged Frank.
Suspension bills are non-controversial in that they often call for the naming of a federal building, or commendation of a citizen or public servant. They require a two-thirds vote and only allow for 40 minutes of debate. According to Maney, Democrats have introduced about a third of the 154 suspension bills considered this year.
Hoyer testified that, “when Democrats controlled the House, we did not always provide for fair debates. We should neither excuse those past practices, nor countenance the current ones."
Hoyer and Frank came to the hearing with a list of recommendations, ranging from assuring all bills would be drafted after an airing in committee to allowing Democrats the opportunity to offer amendments without the majority using the rules to block them.
But Greg Crist, spokesman for the House Republican Conference (search), balked, saying they are asking for the rules of the House to be changed just because they can’t beat them. “I think the process has been fair,” he said, noting Republicans have given Democrats the option of returning certain bills to committee if they don’t like them.
“But do we give the Democrats use of the floor for their theatrics? No,” he added.
Feehery said it would be obstructionist for the Democrats to try to intentionally slow the legislative process through so-called guerilla tactics. Though the Democrats are keeping such plans close to the vest, sources guessed they could include voting down more suspension bills, or inundating the floor with calls for procedural votes, like adjournment motions.
“If they are viewed as obstructionist, they will fail,” said Feehery.