By Jonathan Weisman and Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 4, 2007
The House last night unanimously agreed to create a special select committee, with subpoena powers, to investigate Republican allegations that Democratic leaders had stolen a victory from the House GOP on a parliamentary vote late Thursday night.
The move capped a remarkable day that started with Republicans marching out of the House in protest near midnight Thursday, was punctuated by partisan bickering, and ended with Democratic hopes for a final legislative rush fading. Even a temporary blackout of the House chamber's vote tally board led to suspicions and accusations of skullduggery.
While Democratic leaders hoped to leave for their August recess on a wave of legislative successes, the House instead slowed to an acrimonious crawl that threatened to stretch the legislative session into next week.
The agreement to form a special committee was extraordinary. Such powerful investigative committees are usually reserved for issues such as the Watergate scandal and the funneling of profits from Iranian arms sales to the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s.
"I don't know when something like this has happened before," said House deputy historian Fred W. Beuttler. He called the decision "incredible."
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) accepted GOP calls for an investigation. "I do not believe there was any wrongdoing by any member of the House. I do believe a mistake was made," he said. "And I regret it."
"We are not irrelevant here," said House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). "Just because we are in the minority doesn't mean we're irrelevant."
GOP lawmakers had marched out of the House chamber about 11 p.m. Thursday, shouting "shame, shame" and saying that Democrats had "stolen" a vote on a parliamentary motion to pull an agriculture spending bill off the floor until it incorporated an explicit denial of federal benefits to illegal immigrants. The bill already would deny such benefits to illegal immigrants, and Democrats stressed that they won the vote fair and square. But a campaign has been launched, and the House has not fully recovered.
"Last night sent a clear message to the American people that there are people in this town who are willing to break rules and utilize extraordinary maneuvers just so that illegal immigrants can receive taxpayer-funded benefits," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.).
Anger-driven delaying tactics threw into uncertainty an agenda that was to include important votes on a huge energy bill, a defense spending bill and a terrorism surveillance measure before Congress's departure for its month-long summer recess.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) accused Republicans of blatant obstructionism. "They've just been deluged by the success of the Democrats on behalf of the American people," she said.
After Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) violated House rules by calling Democrats "cheaters" on the floor, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.), a freshman and relative political neophyte, warned her colleagues that their mothers might be watching.
Even the House hardware contributed to the disarray. Republicans had at last been coaxed back to the House floor yesterday afternoon, when a lawmaker moved to adjourn the House, a favorite GOP delaying tactic. As the votes were coming in, the electronic tally board suddenly went blank, leading to a new round of recriminations and another House recess.
"I understand that everybody's sensibilities are taut," Hoyer pleaded, as Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) hinted darkly that perhaps the House had just voted to adjourn. "I regret what happened last night, but we do have business to do," Hoyer said.
It started late Thursday, when GOP lawmakers moved to send the 2008 agriculture spending bill back to the House Appropriations Committee for members to add an explicit prohibition on illegal immigrants receiving food stamps. With so much on their plate, Democratic leaders were in no mood to comply.
Democrats appeared to have won the vote, but with the voting time apparently having expired, GOP leaders persuaded three Latino Republicans who had voted with the Democrats to change their votes. At the same time, Democrats say, five Democratic lawmakers who had voted with Republicans were scrambling to change their votes as well. With two of the GOP votes changed, Democrats gaveled the vote shut, 214 to 214, and declared that they had won. But the public tally showed that the Republicans had won, 215 to 213, just as the vote was declared for the Democrats. The official final tally was 216 to 212 in the Democrats' favor.
But House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said there were no Democrats seeking to change their votes at the time. Moreover, he charged, Hoyer had told a protesting parliamentarian, "We control, not the parliamentarians." And, he said, electronic records on the vote disappeared from the House's voting system and on the House clerk's Web site.
"Many of my colleagues and I feel as though the vote was taken from us," Boehner said.
In a raucous protest, Republicans walked out of the House en masse.
Hoyer conceded that the gavel had fallen too quickly, but he said it had been an error. When he put the issue to a new vote, Republicans boycotted, demanding that their victorious tally stand.
Pelosi was unsympathetic.
"There was no mistake made last night," she said. "Apologies were made for the early announcement of the vote," but the early announcement would not have changed the outcome, she added.
The select committee, to be made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, will deliver an interim report by Sept. 30, with the final report due by Sept. 15, 2008.