House GOP Shut Out Despite Democrats Promise for Bipartisan Rule

It was 2004 and Democrats were into their 10th year as the minority party in the House when they proposed a bill of rights to ensure their participation in the democratic process.

The GOP ignored them.

Now Republicans, newly demoted to the minority, say they are the ones suffering abuse despite repeated Democratic promises that theirs would be a more open, democratic and inclusive rule.

"It seems," said Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, "over the last three weeks that the more we reach out and offer our hand of bipartisanship, (the more) it is slapped away."

Democrats deny they are seeking retribution for 12 years of perceived slights. They also say they are not reneging on the assertion, in their bill of rights, that bills should go through a process of open hearings and full debate where the minority party can offer amendments.

Democrats say that with completion of their first "100 hours" agenda, business will return to "regular order." In that opening rush to the new Congress, Democrats rushed through priorities such as raising the minimum wage, imposing new ethics and lobbying rules and cutting prescription drug and student loan costs.

Yet "regular order" has not returned, at least so far.

During the past week, Democrats pushed through, with limited GOP input, two major bills: One would take away the pensions of lawmakers who commit crimes and the second would give partial voting rights to delegates from U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.

Earlier hopes of a new era of civility quickly dissipated with the pensions bill. Republicans claimed that, without their knowledge, Democrats made last-minute changes that were written on a napkin.

"Members of the current minority sat here for two weeks grinding their teeth while they watched things come to the floor without having gone to committee, without prior debate and discussion," said the former chairman of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich. "And this is the crowning insult."

"It is tough to be in the minority, isn't it? I feel your pain," Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.,

He said that with a smile to Republicans while pointing out that the late changes came as a request from Boehner, the House GOP leader.

Asked at a news conference about the napkin, Hoyer said, "It was on some piece of paper, the consistency of which I do not know."

Tempers grew even shorter on the delegate bill.

Democrats were sensitive to the fact that not a single Republican amendment had been allowed over the first three weeks of the session. So they ruled a GOP amendment OK to debate — even after the sponsoring lawmaker decided to withdraw it.

Boehner then introduced a resolution criticizing Democrats for trying to force the amendment. That effort failed by a party-line vote.

The House long has earned a reputation for being far more partisan than the Senate. In the Senate, the minority's power to stall legislation requires the majority to reach out if it wants to pass bills.

In the House, Democrats lorded it over Republicans for 40 years before Newt Gingrich led the GOP to victory in the 1994 elections.

Republicans pledged not to treat Democrats as they had been treated. But former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, adopted a strategy of pushing ahead on legislation by demanding loyalty from Republicans and shutting out Democrats.

Democrats complained that they were frequently denied the right to offer amendments, were excluded from House-Senate negotiations over final legislation and were forced to vote on bills for which they were not given time to read.

Democrats howled when GOP leaders, during tight roll call votes, kept open the balloting for hours while they browbeat members to change their votes.

"Both sides carry a pretty heavy load of past sins," said Brooks Jackson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. The jury is out on whether Democrats will do any better this time, he said, but "memories are long and slights are not forgotten. It's tough to get over that."

It appears that Republicans will have to wait a bit longer before they see how sincere Democrats are about giving them a voice.

The House this week plans to take up legislation to fund most federal programs through Sept. 30, the end of the current budget year. This task was foisted on the Democrats because the last Congress, with GOP in control, failed to pass all but a few spending bills.

With the House trying to work out a deal with the Senate on that spending plan and Congress about to begin work on the 2008 budget, there is no time to open up the bill to proposed changes, Hoyer said.

"I want to tell you candidly," he told the No. 2 House Republican, Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt, "that I believe there will not be a full opportunity" to offer amendments.