House Democrats head into the August recess furious at Republican leaders who they claim have crossed the acceptable boundaries of partisanship.
But their anger has also emboldened them to try harder to work together as an opposition party and get their message across.
Democrats interviewed by The Hill say that last Friday’s fracas at the House Ways and Means Committee served as an emotional tipping point that would likely further solidify unity within party ranks across the ideological spectrum.
The new-found harmony could lead them to work together to forge a common position on a prescription drug bill and the child tax credits during the coming five-week break.
House Democratic leaders are demanding that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) establish an ad hoc, bipartisan commission to determine the sequence of Friday’s events that culminated in a confrontation between Capitol Police and Democrats on the tax-writing panel.
So far, Hastert has rebuffed the request. But a Democratic leadership aide said Democrats would not drop their protest until the Speaker made an effort to find out precisely what happened last week.
“We are going to continue to ask for some sort of investigation,” said the aide: “A bipartisan mechanism needs to be set up to interview people about what the facts are. If we let things lie as they are the chairman can call the police on people whenever he wants to.”
As the Democrats see it, the commission could consist of as few as two members so long as it included a Democrat.
For the Democrats, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas’s (R-Calif.) calling of the Capitol Police crystallizes their discontent with their treatment this Congress. They claim that it is of a piece with a Republican majority intoxicated by its power and bent on denying the minority party their democratic rights.
They argue that Friday’s events are reminiscent of what they claim was the session’s other egregious abuse of power: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) role in involving the Department of Homeland Security in a partisan dispute over Texas redistricting.
“Friday was the most stark example of Republican abuse of power, but that may not be the best way to put that,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), in reference to Rep. Pete Stark’s (D-Calif.) involvement in the controversy.
Hoyer added: “I think clearly what happened on Friday had the added effect of giving a greater energy to what I call, as you know, the psychology of consensus in our caucus, a greater sense of being in this together against a pretty arbitrary, capricious and willful opposition, the majority.”
“I think there is a greater psychology of consensus, of being together, of understanding that if we’re going to have a message that message needs to not be garbled by or undermined by divisions within our party.”
“I can’t remember any incident analogous to last Friday,” Hoyer added, admitting that while his party was in the majority Republicans also justifiably complained about procedural abuses of power.
“Friday is not gone. It is not forgotten,” he said.
Democratic Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) agreed that Friday was a tipping point but also noted that the frustrations had been mounting for some time.
As he put it: “Our unity stems from our strong belief that the damage and dishonor the Republican majority has brought onto this institution must be reversed immediately.”
On Monday night, the Democrats met to vent their anger and to discuss ways to register it. In addition, Democrats plotted how to force the Republican leadership to bring the child-credit tax bill that still awaits a resolution in conference.
Participants said that the caucus did not reach any conclusions on a specific strategy over the child-tax credit issue.
But they were firm in demanding an apology from Thomas and a clarification from the GOP leadership when Capitol Police can be properly called to intervene in partisan disputes, as well as a chance to revisit the pension reform bill in committee.
“We don’t understand why they just don’t apologize,” said a senior Democratic leadership aide.
“So you have to eat a little crow, but it’s just a little crow and it could diffuse a lot of tension right now,” the aide added.
Asked how he felt that his actions last Friday had the effect of galvanizing the Democrats, Thomas said, “I don’t have a response to that.”
Even Democratic freshmen said that they sensed a dramatic mood change.
“It really called to attention the difference between leadership and arrogance. It’s a gray area, but when arrogance gets to a certain point, there’s a tipping point,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), a freshman.
Meanwhile, Republicans downplayed the Democrats’ righteous indignation and mocked their mantle of victimhood.
“I’ve been here nine years and I hear the same thing every summer,” said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), former chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.
“There’s no more reason for them to be emboldened this year. There’s nothing in the polls to support that,” he added. “The next election isn’t about them, it’s about us….they can get as irresponsible as they want and not do a lot of damage to themselves.”
Democrats continued to hold out the threat of guerrilla floor tactics to highlight the Republicans’ failure to pass the child-credit bill. On July 25, the IRS is scheduled to send refund checks to the families that qualified under the initial law.