WASHINGTON – Rep. Bill Thomas (search), one of the most powerful committee chairmen in Congress, told a somber House of Representatives on Wednesday that he exercised "poor judgment" last week when he called for the Capitol Police to help remove Democrats from a room where they were meeting.
"As my mother would have put it, `when they were passing out moderation, you were hiding behind the door,"' the California Republican -- a man known for his abrasive style -- said as he choked back tears.
Thomas noted that a columnist had described his action as "just plain stupid,' then added, "I agree with him."
Thomas' comments amounted to the act of contrition that fellow Republicans had sought in the wake of his role in a partisan meltdown last week in the Ways and Means Committee. But it fell short of the full-throated apology that Democrats clamored for, and Thomas defended another of his controversial actions on Friday, a decision to call House security officials to the committee's main meeting room.
Republicans vigorously applauded Thomas when he completed his remarks. Many Democrats stood and clapped, with less enthusiasm than the GOP lawmakers. Rep. Fortney Stark (search), D-Calif., whose verbal assault on a GOP lawmaker played a key role in last week's furor, applauded briefly from his seat.
Moments later, Rep. Charles Rangel (search), D-N.Y., the senior Democrat on the committee, thanked Thomas for his remarks, at the same time emphasizing the point Democrats have been making since the controversy erupted. "The minority has a right to be respected, to be heard ...to know what is in the bill," he said. Republicans have an obligation, he added, "to use not the rules that we make up as we go along, but the rules that have allowed this (House) to exist for over 200 years."
Thomas stepped to the rostrum in hopes of quelling days of controversy in a House divided narrowly along party lines.
"I learned a very painful lesson on Friday. As members you deserve better judgment from me and you'll get it," he said. "Because of my poor judgment those outside the House who want to trivialize, marginalize and debase this institution were given an opportunity to do so. Because of my poor judgment the stewardship of my party...has been unfairly criticized. Because of my poor judgment I became the focus of examination rather than the issues."
In a quarter-century in Congress, Thomas has developed a reputation for a confrontational, acerbic personality, as well as his knowledge of complex matters of tax, trade and other legislation. His ascension to the committee chairmanship three years ago brought him considerable power, and Republicans and Democrats alike -- including most recently a Senate Republican committee chairman -- have publicly accused him of high-handed tactics.
As liberal as Thomas is conservative, Stark has a history of insulting fellow lawmakers, and few if any Democrats have defended his conduct during the controversy. At the same time, Democrats continued to attack Thomas, and forced a second vote during the day on a proposal to criticize his behavior and send pension legislation, at the center of the dispute, back to committee. Republicans killed it on a 223-193 party line vote, much as they forced rejection of a similar proposal last Friday.
"Never before in our time in Congress have we seen such a blatant abuse of power by a committee chairman," Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., wrote all House members on Tuesday. "We were not breaking any rules of the House. We were meeting together, in an empty room commonly used by Republican and Democratic members alike, to develop our response to" the pension bill.
The controversy flared when Thomas had the Capitol police summoned during a committee meeting called to vote on the pension legislation. Democrats, claiming the bill had been changed overnight without their knowledge, moved into an adjoining library, leaving Stark behind to try to slow progress on the legislation.
But Stark soon was hurling insults at Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., calling him a "wimp" and a "fruitcake." The Californian later issued a statement acknowledging using "words that were not becoming."
Democrats claim the police were called to evict them from the library, and before Stark attacked McInnis verbally. Some Republicans say they were called out of fear that Stark might instigate a physical conflict.