Democrats see ruckus in the House as a rallying call

The incident in which Capitol Hill police were summoned shows the depth of partisanship in Congress.

Late nights, pressure on the job, angry words, a summons to the police: A scenario for domestic violence? No, just a highly partisan dispute in the US House of Representatives that Democrats hope to morph into rallying cry to take back the Congress.

By any measure, last Friday's meeting of the Ways and Means Committee - and its subsequent rehash on the floor of the House - sank comity in the people's house to a new low. It started with a dispute over a surprise revision of a pension bill and wound up with a call to the Capitol police.

No one can recall a committee chairman ever calling in the police to preempt fisticuffs between colleagues or to evict members from a meeting room - the two competing versions of the events of July 18. But there is ample precedent for how such a flashpoint can be amplified into a rallying cry to take back power.

Ever since the 2002 elections, Democrats have struggled for a unifying message to rally their troops, at least on Capitol Hill. The war and the economy didn't do it fully; too much division within Democratic ranks. But abuse of majority power is something all minority Democrats can agree on, and Friday's events opened a new opportunity to amplify what they believe is a valid complaint.

Democrats lost no time in making it. E-mails alerted journalists to rush to the disputed library in the Longworth House Office Building. Later in the afternoon, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi invoked a rarely used parliamentary device to force a debate on the House floor over the actions of chairman Bill Thomas (R) of California. The debate pulled out all the rhetorical stops: Rep. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey compared the incident to what happens in police states that Hispanic refugees flee. Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia recalled facing dogs, arrest, and jail as a civil rights activist in the 1960s.

"I never thought that as member of Congress I would be threatened with arrest by sitting in the library of the Ways and Means Committee," he said on the House floor hours after the event. "I say to the chairman of this committee: 'We will not be intimidated. We will not be immobilized. We live in a democracy and not in a police state.' "

There is precedent for scoring political points over such a move: The most recent is when Republicans staged a walkout in January 1985, after House Democrats refused to seat GOP challenger Richard McIntyre of Indiana, who had been certified the winner by the Indiana secretary of state. "It was a turning point for Republicans," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "They awakened from a long slumber, and from that moment on they were determined to get back into the majority and worked hard at it. And it culminated for them nine years later in the '94 election."

Democrats haven't endured the 40 years in the "wilderness" that Republicans had the last time they were in the minority, but to many it feels as if it's been that long. After Republicans took back the House in 1994, Democrats predicted they would return to power in the next election. But redistricting and changes in campaign-finance laws are making that prospect more and more remote.

"The Republican majority is firm, and it would take a tidal wave to reelect Democrats as a majority in the House, because they are so outclassed in terms of money and the demographics of most seats," says Mr. Sabato.

Studies of the GOP years in the minority show that one reason they were never able to break through is that so many of their incumbents kept retiring, and they couldn't convince their good candidates to run. By taking the offensive now, Democrats may be moving toward the same assault on the institution that former Speaker Newt Gingrich used to pave the way for a GOP victory in 1994. "They're bringing bills to the floor at such a pace that the ordinary member has no time to understand the bill and prepare amendments," says Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio. "It's backroom politics at its worst, but it's melding the Democrats together."

THE Ways and Means Committee has been the focus of much of the Bush administration's domestic agenda in the 108th Congress, especially tax cuts and Medicare reform. No one has been more visible in that struggle than the committee's brilliant and irascible chairman, Mr. Thomas. Known as "the mailman" of the Bush administration - for his capacity to deliver the president's agenda - Thomas has also sparked strong feelings in the House, even among some Republicans, for his energy and tactics. He is currently chairing negotiations between House and Senate conferees over the shape of a final prescription-drug bill. GOP insiders say the criticism of Thomas on Friday could also be seen as a bid to undermine his authority in these negotiations.

Whatever it was, the reverberations continue. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said on "Meet the Press" Sunday that the "American people expect the elected members to Congress to work and get serious things done. We try to do that, but, you know, sometimes people's behavior appears to be the behavior you see out of third-graders. I'd just say, let's grow up and get our work done."

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