WASHINGTON -- In a move that drew cries of outrage fro Republicans, the House Democratic majority decided yesterday to limit televised after-hours 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 9 p.m. EST curfew on the previously unlimited "special orders" broadcast by the C-SPAN network, sailed through the party's caucus by a vote of 174-35.
Since the House has a lopsided 258-176 Democratic majority, the new rules were expected to be adopted when Congress convenes Jan. 5 despite the Republican protests 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 of California, vice chairman of the Democratic caucus.
But Rep. Robert K. Dornan, a California Republican who repeatedly used the after-hours network to accuse Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton of womanizing and draft-dodging during the presidential election campaign, said the rules change threatened 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," Mr. 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 as long as 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.
In another sign of interparty warfare, Rep. Christopher Cox, a California Republican, said House Republicans were preparing a legal challenge to a decision Tuesday by the Democratic caucus to let delegates from the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa 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," Mr. Cox said, adding that it was 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.
Meanwhile, a showdown was avoided in the Democratic caucus on a proposal to apply term limits to committee chairmen when its chief proponent, Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, decided against offering it 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 their example. Even so, Republicans hoped 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, a California Republican. But Mr. Fazio called the GOP move to limit terms of ranking members "a grandstand play."