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House Committee Erupts Into Partisan Maelstrom

Times Staff Writers

A committee deliberation exploded into a near-brawl in the House of Representatives on Friday, as epithets and insults like “wimp” and “fruitcake” filled the air and Capitol police were summoned to the scene.

At the center of the extraordinary maelstrom were two Californians, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), a conservative who does not suffer political opponents lightly, and Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward), who is regarded as a liberal firebrand with a short fuse.

No blows were struck or arrests made. But the day ended with a series of seething floor speeches, reflecting the frustrations of Republicans eager to use their power and Democrats tired of having none.

Outnumbered 229-205, Democrats lose virtually all of the important House votes -- and, worse yet, Republican committee chairmen regularly brush them aside. Such is particularly the case on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, which Thomas runs with an iron fist.

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The seeds for Friday’s dust-up, the most vitriolic in years in the House, according to longtime observers, were sowed the night before when Thomas circulated the Republican draft of a pension-reform bill shortly before midnight and scheduled a committee vote for the morning.

When Democrats arrived Friday for the committee’s deliberations, they demanded more time to study the bill. They repaired to the committee library immediately behind the main hearing room, leaving only Stark in the larger room to try to delay the Republicans from acting on the bill.

With Stark mounting a rear-guard action against the committee Republicans, the rest of the committee Democrats read and discussed the bill.

In the main committee room, Stark insisted that the bill be read aloud word for word, a rare tactic that would give his colleagues in the back room time to discuss their strategy.

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The bill’s reading infuriated Republicans, eager to vote and leave town for the weekend.

Police Summoned

According to the Democrats’ version of events, Thomas’ staff summoned a Capitol police officer, who told them that a “disturbance” had been reported and ordered the Democrats to leave the back room.

The Democrats refused to budge. Finally, they left to cast a vote on a spending bill on the House floor.

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“Where does any member get the authority to call the cops on another member?” Rep. Gerald D. Kleczka (D-Wis.) said afterward.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an often-arrested veteran of the 1960s civil rights protests, said: “I never thought that as a member of Congress, I would be threatened with arrest by sitting in the library of the Ways and Means Committee. It is unreal, it is unthinkable that a member of Congress would try to have another arrested for carrying out his or her congressional duties....

“A few short years ago, some of us stood up to Bull Connor in Birmingham, Ala.... And I must say to the chairman of this committee, we will not be intimidated,” Lewis said. “We live in a democracy, and not a police state.”

Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the committee’s top Democrat, said the incident was part of a pattern of Republican disrespect for Democrats.

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Democrats Frustrated

“The Republicans have a slim majority and yet they have a long history of trying to suppress the rights of Democratic members to be heard, to be given fair notice of what we are asked to vote on, and to express our views,” Rangel said. “We Democrats represent almost half the population and yet we are forced to hold sit-ins. Then, they call the cops!”

According to the Republicans’ versions of events, Thomas called the police because he feared that Stark would get into a fight with Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.), a former Glenwood Springs, Colo., police officer 21 years Stark’s junior.

A transcript of the committee meeting quoted Stark as belittling Thomas’ intellect. Although the transcript does not show it, McInnis interjected, “Shut up.” The transcript then shows Stark saying, “You think you are big enough to make me, you little wimp? Come on. Come over here and make me, I dare you. You little fruitcake.”

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It is about then that Thomas interjected: “Recess is over. The classroom has been resumed."McInnis said later that he took Stark’s threat seriously.

“We were within moments ... of, I would guess, a physical engagement,” McInnis said. “I fully intended to defend myself.”

Stark said in an interview later that he regretted calling McInnis a “fruitcake.” But he also said the transcript missed his telling Thomas, “You’re behaving like a fascist.”

But Stark, 71, denied that he threatened fisticuffs.

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“I’m an elderly gentleman,” he said. “I haven’t been in a fight involving bodily contact for over 60 years.... Look, I fall over trying to put on my underwear in the morning.”

Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), a committee member, said that once the police arrived, Thomas directed them to remove the Democrats from the back room “because they’re using it without authorization.”

But, he said, a short time later, Thomas had second thoughts and then told staff to tell the police, “never mind, the Democrats can use the library.”

McCrery acknowledged in an interview that it was “probably over the top” for Thomas to send the police to the library, but “to his credit, he rethought it pretty quickly, and called that off.”

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McCrery accused the Democrats of “petulance.”

The Democrats ultimately left the library peacefully.

Stark also left, and the committee record shows that the committee approved the pension bill without dissent.

In the afternoon, tempers boiled over to the House floor when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) sought to reproach Thomas for subjecting Democrats to an “indignity” and to invalidate the committee action on the pension bill.

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“Democrats must draw a line in the sand on the repression of our rights in this Congress,” Pelosi said.

In keeping with the tenor of the day, the measure was rejected on a strictly party-line vote.

Thomas did not take to the floor to respond to the Democratic criticism, and his office said he would have no comment.

A House leadership aide said the party intentionally kept Thomas out of the floor debate for fear that his presence would merely inflame partisan passions.

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Bill Called Misguided

The controversial $50-billion pension bill would boost retirement-savings options for workers and ease the nation’s pension crisis -- at least temporarily.

The proposal was heavily supported by mutual fund companies and hundreds of companies that sponsor the so-called defined-benefit pension plans.

However, some pension advocates said the bill could undermine pension security for millions of American workers.

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“It is a terribly misguided legislation,” said Karen Ferguson, director of the Pension Rights Center in Washington, D.C. “It is both bad tax policy and bad retirement policy.”

If passed, the bill would boost to $15,000 the maximum Americans could contribute each year to defined-contribution retirement accounts, such as 401(k) and 403(b) plans.

Those 50 and older also would be able to make $5,000 annual catch-up contributions.

The maximum 401(k) contribution amount is currently $12,000 per year. Those 50 and older can make a $1,000 annual catch-up contribution under current law.

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The provision that’s likely to have the biggest impact is a technical change that has been heatedly sought by hundreds of companies that sponsor defined-benefit pension plans.

This provision would boost the interest rate used to calculate pension earnings by replacing the 30-year Treasury bond with a corporate bond index.

The higher rate of return would reduce the amount of money the companies would need in their pension funds to guarantee the ability to pay future benefits.

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Times staff writer Kathy Kristof in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Quotes from a tension-filled day

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‘Recess is over. The classroom has been resumed.’

Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) after angry exchange between Democrat Pete Stark and Republican Scott McInnis

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‘Come over here and make me, I dare you. You little fruitcake.’

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Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward) to McInnis after the latter reportedly told him to ‘shut up’

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‘We were within moments ... of I would guess, a physical engagement. I fully intended to defend myself.’

Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) regarding Stark’s verbal challenge

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‘Where does any member get the authority to call the cops on another member?’

Rep. Gerald D. Kleczka (D-Wis.) regarding Thomas’ decision to call Capitol police to oust Democrats from a library

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‘I must say to the chairman of this committee, we will not be intimidated....We live in a democracy, and not a police state.’

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)

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‘Democrats must draw a line in the sand on the repression of our rights in this Congress.’

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco)

Los Angeles Times


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