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In the House, Suddenly Righteous Republicans

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 4, 2007

Thirty-one-year-old Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) is not a large man, standing perhaps 5 feet 3 inches tall in thick soles. But he packed a whole lot of chutzpah when he walked into the House TV gallery yesterday to demand that the new Democratic majority give the new Republican minority all the rights that Republicans had denied Democrats for years.

"The bill we offer today, the minority bill of rights, is crafted based on the exact text that then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi submitted in 2004 to then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert," declared McHenry, with 10 Republican colleagues arrayed around him. "We're submitting this minority bill of rights, which will ensure that all sides are protected, that fairness and openness is in fact granted by the new majority."

Omitted from McHenry's plea for fairness was the fact that the GOP had ignored Pelosi's 2004 request -- while routinely engaging in the procedural maneuvers that her plan would have corrected. Was the gentleman from North Carolina asking Democrats to do as he says, not as he did?

"Look, I'm a junior member," young McHenry protested. "I'm not beholden to what former congresses did."

Anne Kornblut of the New York Times asked McHenry if his complaint might come across as whining.

"I'm not whining," he whined.

Even before officially relinquishing majority status today when the 110th Congress convenes, Republicans were protesting the Democrats' heavy-handed leadership. But Republicans expecting Democrats to rule the House with an iron fist are likely to be pleasantly surprised: The incoming majority was having enough trouble keeping its own supporters in line.

House Democratic leaders were giving their first news conference of the year when the session in the Cannon building was hijacked by Cindy Sheehan and other antiwar demonstrators, some wearing tie-dyed apparel and pins comparing President Bush to Adolf Hitler. Just after Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) vowed, "We're gonna cut the interest rate in half for student loans," hecklers began to chant "De-escalate! Investigate! Troops home now!"

"That is exactly what we're talking about," Emanuel said, trying to appease the protesters. But the hecklers kept chanting, and he fled.

The Democratic leaders in retreat, Sheehan seized the microphone. "We put them back in power," she said of the Democrats. Passing out fliers calling for defunding the Iraq war, Sheehan shouted: "These are our demands. And they're not requests -- they're demands."

If yesterday was any indication, the 110th Congress will be highly entertaining, if not terribly productive. So far, it's hard to tell which will be a larger impediment to Democratic leaders: the McHenrys or the Sheehans.

The day began when House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) led fellow House GOP leaders to a news conference in a Capitol basement hall. At 32, he is a year older than McHenry, and several inches taller, but no less outraged by Democrats' refusal to bestow on Republicans the rights that Republicans refused to bestow on Democrats.

"We are disappointed," protested Putnam, whose fair skin was covered with a layer of makeup.

"We're clearly disappointed," seconded Roy Blunt (Mo.).

"I'm disappointed, as are some others," added Kay Granger (Tex.).

"I am very disappointed," concurred David Dreier (Calif.).

It fell to CNN's Dana Bash to point out the awkward truth. "You can play back, almost verbatim, Democrats . . . saying almost exactly what you all just said," she said. "So is there a little bit of hypocrisy in you saying that you want minority rights?"

"This is a missed opportunity to really change the way that the House does business," Putnam offered, citing Democrats' campaign promises for "a new way of doing business."

"What stopped you from taking that opportunity when you were still in the majority?" inquired Rick Klein of the Boston Globe.

"Well, I'll let Chairman Dreier speak to that," Putnam ventured.

Republicans must have known they'd have some explaining to do, because they scheduled back-to-back news conferences on their minority rights. As soon as Putnam's session ended, Granger took the elevator up three flights and joined McHenry and his cohort in the TV gallery.

Granger had not updated her talking points. "It's very disappointing," she said.

Further disappointment came when the first questioner elicited the confession that none of the lawmakers had previously sympathized with Pelosi's plea for minority rights. McHenry unfurled excuses: "We were not in Congress. . . . I didn't have the opportunity. . . . She did not put it in legislative form."

It had all the makings of a PR debacle. Fortunately for McHenry, the Democrats were otherwise engaged. An hour after fleeing the microphone because of Sheehan's heckling, Emanuel and other Democratic leaders returned for another attempt to talk about ethics and the minimum wage.

"Rahm, would you answer Cindy Sheehan, though?"

"An hour or so ago you had to stop your remarks because [of] Cindy Sheehan."

"What are Democrats going to do about the war in Iraq?"

For the new majority, it must have been, well, disappointing.

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