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Congress in chaos before recess

Times Staff Writers

The lights went out. The House voting machine crashed. And partisan battling exploded Friday on Capitol Hill, stalling key legislation and casting a lengthening shadow over Democrats’ first year of total majority rule since 1994.

Throughout what was to be the last day before the summer recess, Democratic leaders scrambled to pass bills to shift U.S. energy policy, authorize surveillance of terrorism suspects and fund the Defense Department for the next fiscal year.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Aug. 05, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 05, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Congress chaos: An article in Saturday’s Section A on partisan tensions in the House identified Rep. David Dreier of San Dimas as a Democrat. He is a Republican.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 08, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Spy agency operations: An article in Saturday’s Section A on the scramble to pass legislation before Congress’ summer recess referred to the Foreign Intelligence Services Act. It should have said the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The energy bill, which would encourage greater use of clean fuels, and the surveillance measure, which would close a legal loophole hindering intelligence-gathering overseas, were seen as particularly vital. The Senate approved the surveillance bill late Friday.

But long-simmering tensions between Democrats and Republicans erupted in shouting and a GOP walkout in the House, and action on the measures there was put off until today -- an unusual weekend session.

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While the legislation is expected to pass, lawmakers from both parties bemoaned the bedlam and the collapse of decorum in the House late Thursday night.

“It’s a toxic kind of atmosphere,” said Rep. Bob Filner, an eight-term Democrat from San Diego who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Democrats took control of both congressional chambers in January after 12 years of almost uninterrupted GOP rule. Seven months later, they had hoped to go home for summer break with a few more legislative victories added to a report card that Republicans have derided as short on accomplishments.

Although the Democrats have succeeded in raising the minimum wage, passing new ethics rules and enacting long-delayed recommendations of the 9/11 commission, they are laboring to assuage public frustration that they have not done more.

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This week, the majority was racing to plug a hole in the Foreign Intelligence Services Act that the administration has complained is preventing efficient surveillance of terrorism suspects abroad.

House critics of the White House war on international terrorism hoped to vote on an amendment to a defense spending bill to close the controversial prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

And House Democratic leaders wanted to pass sweeping energy legislation designed to move America away from dependence on fossil fuels by mandating cleaner energy sources for utilities.

Instead, they confronted the chaos as rebellious Republicans, alleging months of slights and injustices, ground the legislative process to a halt.

Trouble in the rancorous House began late Thursday night during debate of an agricultural spending bill, when the chamber broke out in shouts and howls over a move by Republicans to insert a provision on illegal immigration.

The GOP measure would have amended the agriculture bill to ensure that no funds could be used to employ or provide housing for illegal immigrants -- about half of the 2.5 million workers on U.S. farms.

The move infuriated Democratic leaders, who saw it as a political maneuver to force their party’s vulnerable freshman members to take a difficult vote that could be used against them next year on the campaign trail.

In a maneuver that recalled the high-handed tactics of House leaders from generations past, the Democrat lawmaker presiding over the chamber brought down his gavel, ending the vote, as Democrats appeared to be prevailing.

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The vote was tied at 214-214, meaning the measure would fail. But at that moment, members on both sides of the tally were switching their votes.

Even before the gavel’s sharp crack had faded, the electronic scorecard above the House floor shifted, showing the tally at 215-213, an apparent GOP victory. But after a flurry of activity, Democrats regained the initiative: Three party members changed their votes, and the tally on the proposal was 212 for, 216 against.

Furious Republicans erupted in boos and chants of “Shame!” The GOP moved to adjourn. Most then stormed out of the chamber in protest.

On Friday morning, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) apologized for the way the matter was handled and offered a vote on the measure again.

But Republicans, who have mounted an increasingly aggressive campaign to disrupt business in the chamber, declined the offer and charged to the floor and the Capitol’s microphones to again cry foul.

“I’ve never seen ... in my service what I saw last night,” said eight-term Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) “It was a low point. This was a fair vote ... and the American people were denied the result of that fair vote. It was unprecedented.”

Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Solana Beach) warned: “There’s going to be hell to be paid over this issue this summer.”

Democrats went to the floor to complain of the minority party’s stunts. “This is not the time to delay,” lectured Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.). “This is not the time to walk out.”

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But even the building seemed to conspire against Democratic efforts to tout their successes Friday.

As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) prepared to discuss her party’s legislative accomplishments, the ornate chandelier that illuminated the news conference abruptly went dark, plunging Democrats on the dais into shadows.

By the time House computers broke down Friday afternoon in the middle of another move by Republicans to adjourn, lawmakers from both parties were in high dudgeon.

Hoyer pleaded with the angry minority. “We need to calm down,” he said from the well of the House chamber. “I understand everybody’s sensibilities are taut.”

For some 45 minutes, the packed House was paralyzed as lawmakers from both parties jeered and hissed at one another.

A request by Hoyer to recess until the system could be repaired was held up by GOP leaders. “This is a very, very serious matter,” chided Rep. David Dreier (D-San Dimas).

“Let’s go home,” cried one voice from the back of the Republican side of the aisle.

There would be no such relief, however.

Friday night, the fight was rejoined as lawmakers debated how to investigate the Thursday night vote. They finally agreed to appoint a committee.

noam.levey@latimes.com

nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.


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