Police called during House meeting
Accusations of name-calling and threats
From Steve Turnham
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Capitol Police were called Friday to a contentious House committee meeting marked by a Democratic walkout and accusations of name-calling, vulgarity and physical threats.
Witnesses described flaring tempers. One GOP lawmaker said he almost came to blows with a Democratic colleague he said was threatening him.
The police told lawmakers to work things out themselves and took no action.
The partisan bickering later spilled over onto the House floor, where Democrats and Republicans offered conflicting accounts about what happened in the Ways and Means Committee meeting on a pension plan bill.
The whole thing blew up, witnesses said, when Democrats complained of the way committee's Republican chairman, Rep. Bill Thomas of California, was running the session.
The Democrats said they needed more time to review some changes in the legislation after getting them only the night before.
When they could not to get a line-by-line reading of the bill, a common parliamentary tactic, they walked out and gathered to talk in a library at the back of the meeting room. Thomas, who has a reputation for being blunt, had his staff call the cops.
Democrats said Thomas called police to get them out of the room. Republicans said the police were called because one Democrat, Rep. Pete Stark of California, got out of hand.
Stark, they said, stayed behind after his colleagues left the committee room to berate Thomas and other committee Republicans.
According to a Democratic aide, the police came, scratched their heads, referred the matter to the House sergeant at arms, who told the committee members to work it out themselves. The Democrats eventually left.
But the matter didn't end there.
Democrats and Republicans hurried to the House floor to denounce one another and give varying versions of what exactly happened.
And long-simmering resentments came to the surface with Democrats -- in the minority -- accusing Republicans of using heavy handed tactics to get what they want.
"We're not taking it anymore," declared House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California.
But Republicans said it was the Democrats who started it.
Stark "threatened me with physical harm," said Rep. Scott McInnis of Colorado, a Republican who sits on the committee.
"I think it was entirely appropriate for the chairman of the committee to call the sergeant at arms and the Capitol Police," McInnis said. "I considered that a bodily threat and I fully intended to defend myself. To calm this down -- that is why the chairman did that."
Rep. Kenny Hulshof, a Missouri Republican who sits on the committee, read what he described as a transcript of the meeting.
In it, he quoted Stark as saying to McInnis, "You little fruitcake, you little fruitcake, I said you are a fruitcake."
And, according a Republican leadership aide, the 72-year-old Stark called Thomas a vulgarity.
Stark's office disputed that charge. "I just talked to the congressman, and he didn't say any such thing," said Lindsey Capps, Stark's press secretary.
Democrat John Lewis of Georgia likened the appearance of the police to his struggle against Southern police chiefs during the Civil Rights era.
"We will not be intimidated, we will not be immobilized; we live in a democracy and not a police state," Lewis said.
The outrage and indignation came fast and furious from both sides on the House floor.
"How outrageous," Pelosi said before introducing a resolution to condemn Thomas for the way he handled the hearing. The resolution failed on a party line vote.
"The Ways and Means Democrats were subjected to an indignity, an indignity no member should have to endure," said Pelosi.
"Make no mistake about this the police were summoned to remove these Democratic members because the chairman didn't want them in the room and for no other reason."
But Rep. Jim McCrery, R-Louisiana, said "the behavior of the minority ... warranted the sergeant at arms being called."
The legislation, by the way, remains before the committee. It would increase the amount of money Americans can put into retirement accounts and change some of the rules dealing with those plans. The bill is H.R. 1776.