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Motion Would Bar Dornan From House Floor

Congress: Democrat makes proposal after a heated confrontation with former colleague.


WASHINGTON — Responding to a harsh confrontation Wednesday with former Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), a New Jersey Democrat introduced an unusual motion to ban him from the House floor and its environs until an investigation into Dornan's challenge of last fall's election results is complete.

The surprise request by Rep. Robert Menendez came just hours after a heated face-off between the two men on the House floor in which Menendez said Dornan called him a coward, a liar and "anti-Catholic," claims that Dornan later confirmed.

Menendez also said Dornan suggested that they step outside to settle the dispute, which Menendez interpreted as an invitation to fight. Dornan disputed that characterization.

"The bottom line is, I can't tolerate this. My own dignity doesn't permit me to tolerate this," Menendez said in an interview later.

Referring to his parents' decision to leave Cuba during the communist revolution there, he added, "My family didn't flee the country they came from for their son to come to the greatest democratic body in the world and be accosted on the House floor."

On the House floor, Menendez used a parliamentary procedure to ask that the sergeant-at-arms be required to remove Dornan--who is contesting last fall's 979-vote victory by Democrat Loretta Sanchez over him in the 46th Congressional District--from the chamber or nearby hallways any time he visits.

Former House members are granted the perk of hobnobbing with former colleagues in the austere chamber, but are prohibited from lobbying on the floor on items in which they have a personal stake.

According to House rules, Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) must bring Menendez's motion to the floor today or Friday. The chair of the session would then decide whether Dornan's visits are subject to the privilege rule that Menendez invoked with his motion, and then authorize debate on the matter before submitting it to a vote. But such rulings, in turn, could be derailed by a vote to table the discussion.

Menendez and other Democrats worried Wednesday that the Republican majority would either schedule the motion for Friday, when the House is officially in session but no business is scheduled and few members are expected to be present, or table it.

Gingrich's press secretary declined to discuss the matter.

Menendez said he thinks the motion has a chance of passage.

"I've had a number of Republicans who have come to me and said they're embarrassed by the whole thing," he said. "Today it's Dornan, tomorrow who knows what it is?"

Dornan-backers, however, said Menendez's proposal is preposterous.

"Since we've had a Congress, we've had a right for former members to come on the floor," said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), Dornan's closest congressional ally.

Dornan, who had left Capitol Hill before Menendez offered the motion that would banish him, escalated his rhetoric upon hearing the news, promising to devote an hour to publicly criticizing Menendez on the House floor if he ever regains his seat.

"I find him an utterly contemptible and dishonorable person. He's a foul liar," Dornan said in an interview. "How disgraceful. He's a whiny little boy. . . . He's just another disloyal Catholic."

Dornan had spent about 30 minutes on the House floor Wednesday morning, as he has on several occasions in recent weeks, shaking hands and patting backs of legislators he served with for more than a decade. While Dornan was in the cloakroom, Menendez rose to the microphone and asked a series of pointed questions regarding the rules governing lobbying by former members in the chamber.

Dornan quickly returned to the floor and confronted Menendez, saying he had never discussed the substance of his electoral challenge on the floor. Menendez accused him of lobbying Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) on the floor, which triggered Dornan's tirade.

Both men offered similar versions of the exchange: Dornan used the term "f-ing," but did not actually say the full swearword. Dornan described Menendez as "anti-Catholic." Menendez turned to walk away, and Dornan called him a "coward."

Later, Dornan suggested they talk outside the chamber.

Dornan recounted: "I said to him, 'Let's be civil. We're both men here. Let's go out in the hall and I'll tell you what my objections are on this race.' "

But Menendez took the comment as an invitation to fight.

"He wasn't asking me to go get a cup of coffee," he said. "The tone and tenor of his remarks, he was suggesting to me, 'C'mon, we can go duke it out.' "

Menendez added: "What it comes down to is, 'Do you think it's important to uphold the dignity of this House?' "

Times staff writer Sam Fulwood III contributed to this report.

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