In Majority, Democrats Run Hill Much as GOP Did

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007

Democrats pledged to bring courtesy to the Capitol when they assumed control of Congress last month. But from the start, the new majority used its muscle to force through its agenda in the House and sideline Republicans.

And after an initial burst of lawmaking, the Democratic juggernaut has kept on rolling.

Of nine major bills passed by the House since the 110th Congress began, Republicans have been allowed to make amendments to just one, a measure directing federal research into additives to biofuels. In the arcane world of Capitol Hill, where the majority dictates which legislation comes before the House and which dies on a shelf, the ability to offer amendments from the floor is one of the minority's few tools.

Last week, the strong-arming continued during the most important debate the Congress has faced yet -- the discussion about the Iraq war. Democrats initially said they would allow Republicans to propose one alternative to the resolution denouncing a troop buildup but, days later, they thought better of it.

"It sounds like we're not doing what we said we would do -- I understand that," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday. "Here, however, we believe we are very justified in one of the most important issues confronting the country, which clearly was a huge issue in the election and which got bottled up in the Senate."

Republican leaders have been complaining daily about being pushed to the margins. "It's hypocritical because they campaigned on openness and bipartisanship," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), adding that shutting out the minority hurts Congress. "It stifles debate and ideas and also manipulates the outcome."

And yet, significant numbers of House Republicans have voted along with Democrats on the legislation passed so far -- a fact that somewhat mutes criticism about iron-fisted tactics.

Some say Democrats risk being accused of the same abuse of power that Republicans were charged with when they were running Capitol Hill. Republicans became notorious for tactics such as prolonging a roll call vote for three hours in order to round up enough Republicans to pass a bill or failing to notify Democratic members of committee meetings or negotiating sessions.

"They're on thin ice now," Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said of the new Democratic leaders. "I'm getting uneasy about this lack of amendments. . . . They're getting to the point where you're past the initial period where you've got an excuse to operate with a firm hand. It's going to be increasingly difficult to rationalize."

In May, months before her party won control of Congress and she became speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said "bills should generally come to the floor under a procedure that allows open, full and fair debate consisting of a full amendment process that grants the minority the right to offer its alternatives, including a substitute." After the election, Pelosi told the Associated Press: "The principle of civility and respect for minority participation in this House is something we promised the American people. It's the right thing to do."

In the first weeks of the new Congress, however, Democrats bypassed the usual legislative committees, refused to allow any amendments and took their agenda straight to the floor for passage. They said they needed a clear path to pass a handful of popular measures that were the basis of their successful November campaign, including expanded money for stem cell research, an increase in the federal minimum wage and implementation of recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission.

Democrats said they would impose "regular order," the rules that permit the minority to participate more widely, in short order.

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