D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) engaged in a heated dispute on the House floor Tuesday night with a Republican colleague, even apologizing for having violated the chamber's decorum with words that her debate opponent thought were too harsh.
So what were Norton and Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) arguing about? D.C. voting rights? The District's gun laws? Actually, the spat stemmed from something unrelated to either D.C. or Utah -- the Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York.
Let's go back to the starting gate: Just after 5 p.m. on a relatively uneventful legislative day, Norton was on the House floor bringing forth a series of uncontroversial measures for quick consideration by the chamber, including a bill to name a post office. Then she brought up H.Res. 1513, a bill sponsored by New York Rep. Scott Murphy (D) congratulating Saratoga -- which Norton called "one of the world's greatest sports venues" -- on the start of its 142nd season in operation.
Such measures usually pass through the House without event, but Chaffetz has been complaining in recent months about the chamber's propensity for spending its valuable time congratulating sports teams left and right .
So on Tuesday, Chaffetz stood up and said that, since "we have so many problems and challenges facing the country," the resolution seemed trivial.
"I'm sure there are some young kids that are here," Chaffetz said. "They're going to go back and talk about their time at the House of Representatives, and they're here in the audience. And they're going to go back and talk to their teachers and the teachers are going to ask, What did you talk about? Did you talk about the war on terror? Did you talk about the debt? Oh, no. They were honoring a race course. A race course. So it's terribly frustrating."
Things went downhill from there.
"If I had a dime for every trivial bill the minority has put on this floor, I could retire as a rich woman," Norton responded, accusing Chaffetz and his fellow Republicans of hypocrisy.
After a couple of intervening speakers, Norton and Chaffetz got back into it, on the subject of whether Chaffetz had "the political guts" to vote against Republican-sponsored sports resolutions. And then Norton invoked a bill Chaffetz himself had sponsored. Let's go to the videotape, courtesy of C-SPAN:
"Just let me say to the gentleman," Norton said, reading from her Blackberry, "it's been pointed out to me that the gentleman cosponsored a resolution, H. Res. 942, commending the Real Salt Lake Soccer Club for winning the 2009 Major League Soccer Cup. I just don't think it lies in the gentleman's mouth to come to the floor and put down this member."
That's when Chaffetz moved to have Norton's words "taken down," a relatively rare occurrence where one lawmaker accuses the other of violating the House's rules of decorum. After a lengthy pause during which chamber officials conferred with each other, Norton got back up and apologized.
"Mr. Speaker, I ask unanimous consent to remove from the record an idiomatic expression that apparently was misunderstood," Norton explained. "I never called the gentleman dishonest. I want to strike the words 'lie in his mouth,' which is an idiomatic expression that means the gentleman has no business saying what he said. But if it is construed to mean that I'm calling him a liar, then I would certainly ask that that be stricken from the record. Indeed, my comments were begun with words about civility here, so I certainly did not intend to call the gentleman dishonest or a liar."
Chaffetz then withdrew his objection, and explained that "yes, I've voted for sports resolutions, I've even cosponsored resolutions, but I came to realize what a waste of time that is. So a number of weeks ago, I took the pledge that I was no longer going to participate."
Eventually, the debate concluded and the chamber moved on to other business. The actual vote on the Saratoga bill was postponed until Wednesday. Meanwhile, we're eager to see what might happen between Norton and Chaffetz the next time a team or venue from D.C. -- rather than New York -- does something worthy of a House resolution.