WASHINGTON — In a move that drew cries of outrage from Republicans, the House Democratic majority decided Wednesday to limit after-hours televised speeches by members of Congress to three hours a day divided equally between the two major parties.
The Democratic plan, which also would impose a 6 p.m. PST curfew on the previously unlimited "special orders" broadcast by the C-SPAN network, sailed through the party's caucus by a vote of 174 to 35.
Since the House has a lopsided 258-176 Democratic majority, the new rules are expected to be adopted when Congress convenes on Jan. 5, despite protests by Republicans, who say that they would be deprived of a valuable forum to air minority views on national issues.
"We've gone too far with the special orders and it's become political theater," said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), vice chairman of the Democratic caucus.
But a conservative California congressman, Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), who repeatedly used the after-hours network to accuse President-elect Bill Clinton of womanizing and draft-dodging during the presidential campaign, said that the rules change threatens to poison the atmosphere of comity in Congress.
"If (Speaker Thomas S.) Foley doesn't ameliorate this, he's going to have the nastiest opening of Congress since 1860 on the verge of the Civil War," Dornan said. "The fight's on."
The issue has major political importance since the potential audience for the C-SPAN programming has been estimated at 60 million.
The channel is carried on many cable television systems and transmits an assortment of floor speeches, government hearings and conferences unabridged. Under existing rules, each member of Congress may request to speak for up to an hour after the close of legislative business. At times, the "special orders" have continued all night up to the time the House convenes the next day.
And in another sign of inter-party warfare, Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) said that House Republicans are preparing to offer a legal challenge to a decision Tuesday by the Democratic caucus. The decision would permit delegates from the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa to cast votes--for the first time--on amendments to legislation during floor debate.
All five of those affected by the proposed change are Democrats.
The move is "an outrageous and abusive power grab," Cox said, adding that it is wrong to dilute the votes of members of Congress by giving partial voting privileges to representatives of territories where U.S. laws do not apply and residents do not pay U.S. taxes.
Meantime, Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) decided not to offer a proposal to apply term limits to committee chairmen because he lacked the votes to win.
Republicans earlier had approved a six-year term limit for ranking GOP members of committees in hopes that Democrats would follow suit. Republicans said that they hope to force a vote on the issue when the House convenes next month.
"How many times can these liberal Democrats try to fool people before the public realizes that they're dealing with political bosses instead of democratic reformers?" asked Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach).
Fazio, however, termed the Republican move to limit terms of its ranking members "a grandstand play."