WASHINGTON — Looking down from the House press gallery, it was clear which side was having fun. The Republicans were grinning and coltish. The Democrats were slumped and grumpy.
Although the House has no filibuster rules, the Republicans were luxuriating in the next best thing: whacking the shins of the California Desert Protection Act with a superbly mounted barrage of delaying tactics.
At issue was sending the House-Senate version of the massive land use bill to a conference committee, usually a routine matter approved by voice vote.
"Mr. Speaker, I move to table the previous question," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), archfoe of the desert bill and jovial ringmaster of what would prove to be a five-hour stellar performance of parliamentary nit-picking.
A psychic groan rolled through the chamber as another roll-call vote was forced by the ebullient Republicans, who eye-winked and back-patted conspiratorially.
For the minority party, it doesn't get any better than this. Even though the Republicans knew they would eventually run out of these mischievous maneuvers, those imperious Democrats would surely know they've been in an alley fight.
When their day was done, the desert bill foes were able to force time-consuming roll calls an amazing 12 times--a virtually unprecedented attack on a single piece of legislation.
Although the California desert bill went on to pass Congress and awaits the President's signature, its near-death experience exemplifies the nasty, crabby and downright mean-spirited partisanship that has virtually paralyzed legislators.
And this happened to legislation that both houses, by comfortable margins, actually \o7 wanted \f7 to pass.
"Somebody must have slept with the rule book last night," observed a House press gallery staffer.
But delaying tactics have been part of congressional give-and-take since the beginning. The Senate was only 6 months old in 1789 when opponents slowed down consideration of a bill to locate the nation's capital on the Susquehanna River. The first full-blown filibusters were unfurled in 1841 over the appointment of the official Senate printers.
The House, with no similar tradition of unlimited debate, nonetheless can be slowed to a crawl by an exhaustive imposition of all procedural votes--a la the desert bill.
And although the clear goal is to hinder legislation, such delaying tactics do provide the minority a chance to showcase viewpoints that the majority has little interest in.
Lewis and his fellow Republicans said that throwing a dozen parliamentary monkey wrenches at the desert bill was the only recourse against an irresponsible, power-drunk majority that dismissed GOP sentiments on the legislation, railroaded it through the House and was hellbent on bargaining away their hard-won amendments in conference deliberations.
Pish, said Democrats. All you Republicans want is to deny Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the desert bill's chief sponsor, a legislative victory to bring home to her rocky reelection campaign--and you'll stoop to the basest procedural shenanigans.
If this sounds more like nonsense than government, bear in mind that, come November, it may be the Democrats who will be conducting such rear-guard actions against ruling Republicans. That is why the arcane rules stay in the book.
Lewis' attack on the desert bill earlier this month used some of this stealth strategy.
A staffer on the House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by desert bill champion Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), alerted reporters that a room in the Capitol had been reserved for 2 p.m. for the House and Senate conferees to iron out their differences.
This suggested that Lewis and company were not expected to contest Miller's scheduled midday vote to move the bill to conference.
"Before we get (to conference), we must dance the dance of legislation," Miller said on the House floor, perhaps with crossed fingers, "and I would hope that all of my colleagues would understand and give us a little bit of tolerance they have left in this session of the Congress."
A tired Miller finally did get to that Capitol meeting room, but not until nearly 7 p.m., pushing further action on the bill into the next day.
Lewis and his comrades had lost the war, but won the battle. Yes, the bill was on its way to passage, but the Democrats had been righteously spanked, their power mocked, their timetable thrown off.
All in all, a good day's work.