Accusing Democrats of taking "cheap shots" at Vice President Dick Cheney and the energy program he is helping to push, House Republicans on Wednesday defeated an effort to block a change in payment of his official residence's utility bills.
After an emotional, bitterly partisan debate, the House voted, 285 to 140, against a Democratic amendment to block an administration proposal to have the Navy assume the full cost of those bills, now split between the Navy and the vice president's office.
"This smells like chicken manure to me," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), calling the amendment "an effort to embarrass the vice president."
But Democrats said the issue was a metaphor for how removed the Bush administration's energy policies are from the financial pressure most Americans face--especially in the West, where electricity prices have been soaring.
"Scores of businesspeople in my district are out of business--that's the tragedy of this crisis," said Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego), the amendment's sponsor. "They don't have the option of asking the Navy to pay their bills."
It was, at heart, a dispute about accounting: Either way, taxpayer money will continue to pay the bill. Still, the bickering underscored the partisan tension underlying the energy issue as the House prepares to consider legislation next week on the White House plan to increase energy production and conservation.
The dispute arose during debate on a $32.7-billion appropriation bill covering the Treasury Department and other government expenditures. The bill, which the Senate will consider next, includes the provision to have the Navy cover the utility costs at the vice president's residence, which is on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory.
Those bills totaled $136,000 last year and are projected to hit $186,000 this year. The idea of shifting the financial burden originated during the Clinton administration.
But Cheney's role as principal pitchman for the administration's energy policy made the proposed change an inviting target for Democrats, who have tried to portray Bush as insensitive to the needs of energy consumers.
"The issue of equity is not chicken manure," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.). "The issue is whether the second most powerful person in the land should be exempted from paying the inflationary costs which are applied to every other citizen in this country."
Republicans dismissed such comments as demagoguery, noting that vice presidents do not pay the utility bills out of their own pocket. They argued Democrats would never have objected to the funding transfer if their party had retained occupancy of the mansion in the 2000 election.
"This amendment should be known as the cheap-shot amendment," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "You don't have any other way to embarrass him, so you trot out this stupid amendment."
The overall spending bill also clears the way for a 3.4% cost-of-living pay raise for senators and representatives, bringing their annual salaries to about $150,000.