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Feds Added to Texas Brawl

GOP misused U.S. resources in hunt for rebellious lawmakers, Democrats charge.

May 16, 2003|Nick Anderson and Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats on Thursday accused Republicans of misusing federal resources in their quest to round up rebellious Democratic state legislators who fled Texas this week amid a partisan dispute.

The charge adds a new layer of controversy to a legislative incident with ramifications for power brokers in Texas and Washington.

At issue is the involvement of a Riverside-based unit of the federal Department of Homeland Security in an attempt, at the request of the Texas state police, to locate an airplane belonging to a prominent Democratic state legislator.

That legislator, former state House Speaker James E. "Pete" Laney, was among the more than 50 Democrats who left Austin, Texas, to deny Republicans a quorum needed for passage of a GOP-drawn congressional redistricting map.

The map, overhauling one put into effect last year after the 2000 census, is meant to tilt the state's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives from a slim Democratic majority to firm Republican control.

Democrats have complained that the plan is being masterminded by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), since approval of the new GOP map would hinder Democratic efforts to retake the House.

For that reason, lawmakers in Washington have closely followed the political circus in Austin and Ardmore, Okla., where the Texas Democrats eventually surfaced, out of reach of the Texas troopers hunting them.

The Democratic rebels said Thursday that they expected to return to Texas today, having achieved for now their goal of blocking the GOP map. Under state House rules, the redistricting plan had to be considered by Thursday or it would most likely be dead for this session, which ends June 2.

While en route to Oklahoma on Monday, some of the Democrats apparently eluded a brief search by the federal Air and Marine Interdiction Coordination Center in Riverside.

The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of the Homeland Security Department that oversees the interdiction center, sought to explain the incident in a statement.

According to the bureau, a Texas Department of Public Safety officer called the interdiction center Monday and asked for help locating a missing aircraft that carried state lawmakers. The bureau said the officer gave the impression that the lawmakers were in peril.

"From all indications, this request from the Texas DPS was an urgent plea for assistance from a law enforcement agency trying to locate a missing, lost or possibly crashed aircraft," the bureau said.

The interdiction center routinely responds to calls for help with missing or wayward planes.

Officials at the center made phone calls and checked radar for about 30 minutes before determining they could not find the plane. No federal aircraft were used, the bureau said.

DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy said his boss was not involved in the request for intervention. This week, asked whether the FBI or other federal agents should help round up the rebellious Texans, DeLay told reporters that he would support "whatever is legal" to compel them to get back to work.

On Thursday, congressional Democrats said the interdiction center -- which is used to track potential terrorists and drug traffickers -- should not have been dragged into the political quarrel.

Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, ranking Democrat on the House Select Homeland Security Committee, called the episode "deeply disturbing."

Turner added: "We created the Department of Homeland Security to track down terrorists, not law-abiding citizens."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, ranking Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said: "If this report is accurate, I am outraged that Homeland Security resources are being used to help settle partisan political scores."

Asked about the matter at the daily White House news briefing, a spokesman for President Bush said "federal resources should never be used inappropriately."

But the spokesman, Scott McClellan, declined to say whether that had occurred in the Texas case. "You're trying to draw me into a Texas legislative battle," he told reporters. "We're focused on the priorities that are happening here."

*

Anderson reported from Washington and Martin from Riverside.

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