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Dreier shifts gears in a hurry

The Republican was a ruthless rules panel chief. Now he cries foul. Democrats are amazed.

January 06, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Democrats never expected to waltz back to power this week without a few protests from the party they ousted.

But when they brought their new ethics rules up for a vote, more than a few eyebrows arched over the congressman who cried loudest about the indignities the Democrats were already inflicting on their GOP colleagues.

As much as any Republican, Rep. David Dreier had stirred the rage of Democrats while they suffered in the minority. Wielding the chairman's gavel of the House Rules Committee, the 14-term congressman from San Dimas seemed to revel in his power as legislative gatekeeper -- the man who could stop any bill from getting to the floor.

But there was Dreier this week, lecturing Democrats on the virtue of openness and professing disappointment about being left out of the legislative process.

"I have whiplash," said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who seethed under Dreier's chairmanship for four years. "I thought it would take a couple of weeks before the hypocrisy bubbled up."

Dreier just smiled when asked about his new role as champion of inclusion. "I'm loving it," said the tall, polished ex-chairman after leaving a news conference in which he complained about the demise of legislative fair play.

"I got a call a few minutes ago from a former staffer who said, 'My gosh, I haven't seen you have so much fun in a long time.' And I said, 'You know what, I'd much prefer being the chairman and in the majority. But I do enjoy the role of being the loyal opposition too,' " Dreier said. "I love holding people accountable. They did it to us constantly, so that's what I'm doing."

The rapid transformation from punitive enforcer to principled rebel reflected the odd political theater that accompanies changes of power on Capitol Hill.

Dreier is actually reprising his role as indignant reformer. Before Republicans took over in 1995, Dreier was among a group of House Republicans who led the charge for more openness under the autocratic Democratic majority. But when Dreier assumed the helm of the Rules Committee in 1999, he became notorious for suppressing minority Democrats.

Meeting in an out-of-the-way room on the Capitol's third floor, the little-understood Rules Committee rarely generates headlines. But because the chairman controls which bills can come to the House floor for votes and whether they can be amended, it is immensely powerful.

"It is the most important tool that the majority in the House has," said UC Berkeley congressional scholar Eric Schickler.

As chairman, Dreier was unfailingly polite and quick with a smile. But he used his power mercilessly, calling the committee to order in the middle of the night, providing committee members little time to review legislation, and sending more and more bills to the floor that could not be amended.

"I could not think of those diabolical things," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, the New York Democrat who is taking over the committee after years as the ranking minority member. "We were simply at their mercy."

Slaughter and other Democrats repeatedly promised they would be different. "We have no intention of keeping our foot on your necks the way you did to us," Slaughter told Dreier on the House floor.

But when Democrats brought up their ethics rules without consulting Republicans and then scheduled votes without allowing amendments, Dreier had the target he needed.

"I am disappointed," he said Thursday on the floor of the House.

"I am concerned," he noted later.

"I am very, very troubled and saddened," he concluded.

Then Dreier urged his Republican colleagues to support the new ethics rules, which banned such perks as free sports tickets from lobbyists and trips on corporate jets. The rules, he said, were not unlike the proposals GOP leaders had crafted when they held the majority.

The performance drew raves from Dreier's GOP colleagues.

"He's doing a great job," said Rep. Adam H. Putnam of Florida, the No. 3 Republican in the House. "He's going out of his way to teach all members how to properly use House rules."

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Florida Democrat who serves on the Rules Committee with Dreier and jousted with him on the House floor, chuckled at the former chairman's joyous embrace of his new underdog role.

"I'm enjoying the banter with him because of his disingenuousness," Hastings said after the debate. "He is the only person in this chamber who can take a position directly contradictory to the one he took a few minutes earlier with a straight face."

noam.levey@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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