Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) tearfully apologized on the House floor yesterday for asking Capitol Police officers to evict Democrats from a committee room Friday, as Republicans worked to quell bad publicity stemming from the fracas.
The extraordinary public admission -- Thomas broke down in tears as he addressed a hushed chamber usually reserved for policy debates and state speeches -- capped a week of quiet damage control by GOP leaders. Furious at the thought of handing Democrats a public relations win, top Republicans have spent hours in closed-door meetings lecturing senior members on proper decorum.
Friday's routine Ways and Means Committee session on pension legislation dissolved into partisan brawling after Democrats said they had not been given enough time to review a substitute version offered by Thomas. When the chairman refused to delay the vote, the Democrats decamped to an adjacent library in protest.
Thomas summoned Capitol Police to oust them, although the arriving officers declined to do so, and the impasse ended without fisticuffs. That did not stop Democrats from blasting Thomas and his GOP colleagues on the House floor all afternoon, and many news accounts and editorial pages aired their complaints.
The scorn focused on Thomas, whose self-confidence borders on arrogance and whose abrasive manner has long been tolerated by House leaders because of his expertise in tax-writing, health care and trade. Yesterday, his normal hubris melted in front of his riveted colleagues.
"I learned a very painful lesson on Friday," he told the House. "As members, you deserve better judgment from me, and you'll get it. 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 as the majority party in this House has been unfairly criticized."
Friday's brouhaha was the latest and loudest manifestation of an escalating animosity between the two parties, notable even in a body designed for serious partisan differences. Some Republicans privately worry they are beginning to look and sound like the high-handed Democratic majority they unseated in 1994. GOP House leaders often refuse to let Democrats offer amendments or ideas for important bills -- precisely the type of complaint House Republicans leveled at Democrats in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) met with Thomas and other Republican members of the Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday afternoon, demanding that they take steps to repair Friday's political damage. DeLay told his colleagues they could be "fair but firm," because they have the votes to defeat Democrats on any substantive issue, one participant said.
Thomas appeared emotional and contrite at the meeting, lawmakers said, promising to try to repair relations with committee Democrats.
Hastert, who told "Fox News Sunday" that "there was a lot of juvenile behavior" on Capitol Hill last week, urged Thomas to apologize for his actions. "He gently nudged him," Hastert spokesman John Feehery said.
Hastert and DeLay held a second session Tuesday with every other committee chairman, warning against rising to the Democrats' bait. Several lawmakers said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was trying to goad Republicans into overreaching. "The only people who can hurt us are ourselves," said one chairman who attended the session.
Thomas, who frequently spars with colleagues and peppers his public and private comments with barbs, admitted yesterday that his style has drawbacks. "It's been said that our strengths are our weaknesses," he said. "Or, as my mother would have put it, 'When they were passing out moderation, you were hiding behind the door.' "
While apologizing for summoning the police, Thomas defended his separate call to the House sergeant-at-arms to "reestablish order in the committee." He was referring to the tirade by Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.) in which he repeatedly called Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) "a little fruitcake."
That angered Pelosi, who did not join her fellow Democrats in rising to applaud Thomas's speech. She told reporters she would not be satisfied until GOP leaders publish a complete account of the circumstances surrounding Thomas's call to the Capitol Police, issue guidelines prohibiting members from summoning police in similar situations and let the Ways and Means panel reconsider the pension bill -- ironically, a measure with Democratic and GOP co-sponsors.
"I respect what Mr. Thomas did," Pelosi said. "But I don't think the record has been set straight yet."
Republicans said last week's flare-up was embarrassing -- one GOP pollster said Thomas handed Democrats "an issue on a silver platter because he couldn't keep his temper in check" -- but expressed confidence that voters would forget the incident. But Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, took the floor after Thomas's speech and said his party wanted better treatment, not merely public apologies.
"To respect the American people, we have to respect each other," Rangel said. "It's not a matter of personalities."