In a odd piece of political gamesmanship, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democrats took to an empty House floor on Friday morning to hammer home that they are in Washington to work on extensions of the payroll-tax holiday and unemployment benefits – while Republicans are not.
But before they got too far, Republicans in control of the chamber shut off the microphones , the House was gaveled adjourned for the day, and C-SPAN TV was instructed to quit broadcasting the events. Democrats still believed they had made their point, even if Americans at home weren't permitted to see them doing it.
“Where are the Republicans?,” demanded Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., assistant to the minority leader, suddenly entering the chamber with Pelosi and the three of the five House Democrats assigned to the payroll-tax extension conference committee.
“Mr. Speaker, where are the Republicans?” asked Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., in a refrain that others echoed.
But Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif. – serving in the rostrum as the speaker pro tem – immediately declared they were out of order, gaveled the House adjourned over their voices, instructed the stenographer to quit taking down the floor statements for the Congressional Record, and walked away. The microphones were shut down, and C-SPAN TV was instructed to quit broadcasting the events, according to House sources.
The Democrats' maneuver was the latest effort this week to present a public picture that their five House conferees and others – about 35 House Democrats in all – are rolling up their sleeves and working while Republicans are away from the capital. Their move reversed House Republicans' complaints in December that Democrats were not around to address the nation's business after the Senate left Washington for the Christmas break.
Afterward, Denham -- who House GOP sources said was given a heads-up such a move by Democrats might be in the works -- called it all "very theatrical." Democrats said they were dead serious in the effort.
As explained by two of the House Democratic conferees, Reps. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the issue Democrats were trying to underscore was that Republicans have insisted that the Congress is in fact at work this week. They note that Republicans have been making that point in protesting that President Obama should not have been able to make a recess appointment this week of Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
But they suggested Friday's action makes that argument ring hollow. While House Republicans say the president should not have been able to make the Cordray appointment because Congress was technically in session, said Van Hollen, "when you walk around here today, they're not here to do their work."
"Either we're in (session), or we're out of session," said Becerra.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, responded that, "The House has passed a yearlong extension of the payroll tax holiday, extended and reformed unemployment insurance, and included other jobs measures like expensing to help businesses invest in new jobs."
"We have appointed conferees and expect to go to conference and finish our work. In the meantime, if House Democrats really to help the American people, they should urge their Senate colleagues to take up and pass the 27 House-passed bipartisan jobs bills awaiting action," he said.