The Hill

Leading The News


Dems’ split over House voting rules spurs chortles from GOP

By Mike Soraghan and Jackie Kucinich

September 07, 2007


The House Rules Committee, known as “the Speaker’s Committee,” is considered an arm of leadership. So when two panel members — including the chairwoman — balk at a Democratic bill, minority members are quick to chortle that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is losing control of her top lieutenants.


“It’s a rebuke of the Speaker,” a Republican leadership aide said. “The real question is, Will Pelosi fire or replace [Chairwoman Louise] Slaughter [D-N.Y.]?”


Wednesday afternoon, the Rules Committee took up an election reform bill by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.). The bill would amend the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) by requiring states to use voting machines that provide a “paper trail” or verifiable paper ballot.


Slaughter quickly indicated she didn’t like the bill, and raised questions about the quality of the new paper ballot machines.


“I am very much concerned that we are passing this law that you have to have it by a certain date,” Slaughter said during the hearing, “when experts tell us there is not a machine that will do this right.”


In an interview, Slaughter said New York election authorities would have trouble getting equipment to replace their lever-pull machines in time for the deadline mandated in the bill.


She wasn’t the only one to express concerns. Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Democrat from Florida, said the bill didn’t go far enough.


“I need to be persuaded. Otherwise I would do something that I have not done since I have been here, and that is vote against a proposed rule,” Hastings said, according to a transcript. “If we ain’t gonna fix it all, then we oughtn’t fix something that ain’t a fix and is not an assurance that we have done the best we can. This isn’t good enough for me.”


The committee membership is tilted far enough in favor of majority Democrats — 9-4 — that the bill could have passed even with Slaughter and Hastings voting no. Still, a vote on a rule to move the bill to the floor was postponed.


Holt went into the committee meeting hoping to have the path cleared for a vote this week. Now it looks as though that won’t happen until next week. Holt said it’s not surprising that a complex election bill would run into problems with elected officials.


“It’s a complicated issue about which every member of Congress believes he or she is an expert,” Holt said.


Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami dismissed Republican rhetoric as overheated and oversimplified.


“How many years were Republicans in power and didn’t bring meaningful election reform?” Elshami said.


A spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called the Republican accusations “overblown.”


“It’s something that’s been a conversation for some time,” Stacey Farnen Bernards said. “It’s not something we weren’t aware of.”


Slaughter cast it as a difference in styles. Republicans march in lockstep, she said, while Democrats let it all hang out in public debates.


“Democrats believe in democracy, unlike that monolith we had before,” she said.


Committee Republicans say it shows disorganization on the part of Democrats.


“This is the kind of chaos that does a disservice to all members and a disservice to the House,” said Jo Maney, a spokeswoman for Rep. David Dreier (Calif.), the top Republican on the panel. “All of these questions result in dysfunction and chaos.”


House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said it was hard to understand why a bill would be brought to committee if the panel’s members were uncomfortable with what was in it.


“It’s pretty interesting that the chairman of the Rules Committee is not going to be able to be for [the legislation],” Blunt said.


This is not the first time the bill has run into trouble. The bill was sailing toward passage in the spring until a coalition of county election officials launched a lobbying campaign against it. A House Administration Committee vote was postponed unexpectedly after election officials from across the country testified before the Elections subcommittee.


The bill also requires an audit of every federal election and seeks to set standards to prevent hacking into voting machines.


“I don’t buy the argument of state election officials that they can’t do it. So many states have already done it,” Holt said.


On Thursday, Slaughter said the latest problems are being worked out. The bill will come back to the Rules Committee today with an amendment to let New York use its lever machines for voting until 2010.


Still, delay does cause a problem, Holt said.


“Every day it’s delayed makes it easier for states to say they can’t implement it,” he said.


© 2007 Capitol Hill Publishing Corp., a subsidiary of News Communication Inc.