So this is what American politics has come to...
Partisan passions boil over as House session degenerates into name-calling--cops called, nation's work screeches to halt

Washington -- Years of partisan frustration brought the House of Representatives to a standstill Friday as agitated lawmakers put the nation's affairs aside to debate exactly why police had been summoned to a Ways and Means Committee's discussion of a pension bill.

Republicans said they called the police because Fremont Rep. Pete Stark, a bombastic Democrat and 30-year veteran of the House, exploded in a profanity- filled tirade, calling a Colorado Republican a "fruitcake" and challenging him to a fight.

Angry Democrats said the real reason Republicans called police was that Rep. Bill Thomas, the short-fused Republican chairman from Bakersfield, wanted Democrats thrown out of the committee's anteroom, where they had huddled to plot strategy.

For nearly three hours, lawmakers hurled invective, squabbled over parliamentary rules and debated the rights of the political minority. Democrats accused Republicans of "tyranny" and being "un-American."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who watched much of the debate from the House floor, growing redder and redder in the face, tried unsuccessfully to engineer a compromise whereby both Thomas and Stark would apologize.

No formal apologies were issued.

The details of the incident that prompted the debate remain in dispute.

Democrats said their frustrations began two minutes before midnight on Thursday, when they were handed a 90-page GOP substitute for a 400-plus page pension reform measure and were told they would be asked to vote on it Friday morning.

When the committee convened, Democrats called for the substitute to be read in its entirety to stall for time. Then they left Stark as their sole representative in the committee room and huddled in a room next door known as the library.


Within minutes, an aide to Thomas approached New York Rep. Charles Rangel, the top-ranking committee Democrat, and told him that the chairman wanted them out of the library. Rangel told him no. Moments later, a Capitol police officer arrived and ordered Rangel to leave. He refused. That prompted a call to the House sergeant at arms, who also failed to get Rangel and his Democratic colleagues to leave.

Meanwhile, in the committee room, Stark was raising doubts that the full text of the measure was actually being read.

"Its eloquence overwhelms me, Mr. Chairman," he told Thomas, "just like your intellect does."

The complaints prompted Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., to tell Stark to "shut up."

"Oh, you think you are big enough to make me," Stark responded, according to witnesses. "You little wimp. I said come over here and make me. I dare you. You are a little fruitcake. You are a little fruitcake. I said you are a fruitcake."

Thomas then ordered the reading to be suspended, a common practice, asked whether there were objections and immediately dropped his gavel.

"I object," said Stark.

"Too late," Thomas responded, according to the transcript. One witness said Stark then leveled a string of obscenities at Thomas, which were not recorded in the transcript. Stark denied it, saying he had only called Thomas a "fascist."

Exactly when the Capitol police were summoned also was a matter of dispute. Stark said there was no question that they were called to clear Democrats out of the library and not because Republicans feared his outburst. His version was corroborated by one Republican who was in the room but was denied by the others.

"You'd have to visualize this," Stark said in an interview. "There were some 25 Republicans there . . . most of whom are at least 20 years younger than I am, and almost all of whom outweigh me by 100 pounds.

"The idea that I would have threatened them would be similar to my barking a command at the defensive line of the Oakland Raiders, and their calling the police because they were threatened by my statement."

"He's a former police officer and champion skier" Stark said of McInnis. "I still play tennis, but I don't play singles anymore, just doubles. I find that almost humorous."


Stark acknowledged that his comments were inappropriate but said his tactics to block the GOP pension bill were not.

Partisan squabbles and frayed tempers are common in the House. But Friday's contretemps reached a new level as Democrats, chafing under eight years of Republican rule, accused the majority of abusing its power.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco brought a resolution to the House floor to deplore Thomas' actions.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., likened Thomas to Bull Connor, the civil rights-era Birmingham, Ala., sheriff and staunch segregationist. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., held aloft a copy of Thomas Jefferson's manual for House rules and asserted: "This is not what Jefferson had in mind, nor I believe our founding fathers."

"It is clear from the debate today that the Republicans have a major problem with the democratic process," Pelosi said. "It is clear that the Republicans are in denial about their behavior, and it is clear that the Democrats must draw a line in the sand on the repression of our rights in this Congress."

Republicans acknowledged that they called the police, but most insisted it was because of Stark.

Republican Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas said his first reaction upon hearing Stark's outburst was to look around the committee room "hoping that there were no young people who witnessed this tirade."

"I didn't know if this member could control his temper or his bodily function," Brady said.

That line drew a protest from Democrats, who demanded it be stricken from the record as outside the bounds of congressional appropriateness. After a five-minute pause, Brady took to the floor to apologize.

After hours of debate, Pelosi's resolution was tabled on a party-line vote.

Stark has a long history of insulting GOP colleagues, referring once to fellow committee member Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., as a "whore for the insurance industry."

He once nearly provoked a fistfight on the House floor with former GOP whip J.C. Watts, an African American and former football star. Watts had been advocating a Republican "fatherhood" initiative to promote marriage as a way to reduce welfare. Stark accused Watts of fathering several illegitimate children. One of Watts' children was born out of wedlock.

Thomas also is famous for his short temper and peremptory methods, which often have angered his fellow Republicans, some of whom have likened his outbursts to juvenile temper tantrums. Thomas seldom hesitates to use the full power of his chairmanship to thwart Democrats.


The meeting

At a House Ways and Means Committee meeting just before midnight Thursday, Democrats, angry about about a Republican effort to force a quick vote on a GOP plan for a pension reform, call for a full reading of the measure to stall for time.

The caucus

Democrats walk out and huddle in a committee anteroom known as the library to plot strategy, leaving Pete Stark of Fremont as their only representative in the committee meeting.

The police

Republicans call the Capitol police to have the Democrats removed from the library. The Democrats refuse to leave. It is eventually decided that this is a committee matter. No one is arrested.

The blowup

Meanwhile, back in the committee meeting, Stark raises objections. A shouting match ensues between Stark and Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo. Republican Chairman Bill Thomas halts the reading of the bill, and Stark, witnesses say, levels further invective at Thomas.

The debate

All parties move to the floor of the House, where they engage in three hours of rancorous debate in which each side accuses the other of debasing Congress. Attempts are made to engineer compromise and apologies. They fail.

In sporting events, the referees usually eject both players in a fight.