WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - It was a scene more worthy of a smoky bar than of one of the most powerful committees in the House of Representatives.
Insults were hurled, threats were made and the police were summoned. In the end, there was even a trial of sorts. But this was no barroom brawl.
It began as a meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee. It culminated with an angry debate in the full House over whether to formally scold the Republican chairman of the panel, the notoriously prickly Rep. Bill Thomas of California, for siccing the cops on his Democratic colleagues.
As fights on Capitol Hill go, this was as raucous as things get. Before the day was out, one lawmaker had declared another to be both a "wimp" and a "fruitcake," and another had accused a colleague of being unable to control his bodily functions.
It was all a vivid symbol of how acrimonious relations between the two parties on Capitol Hill have become.
What began as a sleepy Friday morning committee session, called to approve a pension bill co-sponsored by Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, and Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, quickly deteriorated into a row.
The trouble started when Ways and Means Democrats, who complain often about Republican efforts to shut them out of the legislative process, tried to slow approval of the pension measure. Peeved that they had been given little notice of the meeting, and just hours to review a 90-page modification that Republicans proposed to the pension bill, the Democrats demanded that the measure be read in its entirety.
More than a dozen of them then stormed out of the room, repairing to an adjacent library to plot their next move. They left behind one member, Rep. Pete Stark of California, to make sure that Republicans could not rush the measure through in their absence.
What happened next is the subject of fierce debate. No one, though, disputes the outcome.
Staff aides to Thomas, who has a reputation for being temperamental, called the Capitol Police, who arrived minutes later in the library. According to Democrats present, the police informed the lawmakers that the officers had been asked by Republicans to remove the Democrats from the library.
The Democrats refused to budge. So the officers went to get their superiors. A representative for the Sergeant at Arms, Congress' top law enforcement officer, was called.
Even as those events were unfolding in the library, a procedural stunt was evolving into a full-fledged beef between Stark and committee Republicans.
As a staff aide dutifully read the pension measure, Stark, a crusty 71-year-old who is prone to outbursts and colorful language, continued to grouse about the proceedings and insulted Thomas.
According to those attending, Rep. Scott McInnis, a Colorado Republican, told Stark to "shut up," prompting the California Democrat to unleash an abusive tirade.
"You think you are big enough to make me, you little wimp?" Stark taunted the 50-year-old McInnis. "Come on. Come over here and make me. I dare you."
Stark then called McInnis a "fruitcake."
The exchange provoked an outburst of laughter in the committee room. It might have received little attention if not for the floor fight that followed. The Republicans approved the bill with the Democrats out of the room, ignoring Stark's objection.
Democrats quickly drafted a resolution criticizing Thomas' conduct in calling police on them and invalidating the panel's approval of the pension bill. They sent it to the House floor to be considered immediately.
Ways and Means Democrats "were subjected to an indignity," said their party's leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. "We cannot let this stand. We cannot let this go unchallenged."
In the nearly three hours of extraordinary floor debate that followed, Republicans argued that Thomas had called police because he was seeking to restore order after Stark threatened McInnis, who they said feared for his physical well-being.
Stark "threatened me with physical harm," McInnis said. He added that he and Stark were "within moments of a physical engagement."
Another Republican, Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, leaped to his colleagues' defense.
"What I witnessed was a profanity-laced, angry, degrading physical conflict that was growing in violence, not lessening," Brady said.
Referring to Stark, he said, "I did not know if this gentleman could control either his emotions or his bodily functions."
After Democrats loudly objected to his comments and asked that he be formally disciplined for them, Brady took back the remarks and said he had meant to refer to Stark's "bodily conduct."
Democrats excoriated Thomas for having used the Capitol Police to break up their meeting. They dismissed as a smokescreen Republicans' claim that the chairman had called police to avert a potential fight. The officers arrived to remove Democrats from the library, they asserted, before the testy exchange between Stark and McInnis took place.
"If it was Mr. Stark in the hearing room with the fruitcake, then why did you call the cops on the Democrats in the library?" asked Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, a New York Democrat, evoking the board game "Clue."
Almost forgotten in the bizarre exchanges was that much of the proceedings involved serious charges. Democrats accused Republicans of running an autocratic House, where the voices of the minority are frequently stifled and power abused.
"You are trampling on the rights of the minority. You are trampling on the rules of this institution," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip. "This is America. This is not American."
Republicans countered that Democrats were engaging in a destructive stunt with the resolution. And they pinned the incident on Stark.
"What is embarrassing the House today is not the behavior of the chairman," said Rep. Phil English, a Pennsylvania Republican, but rather the resolution censuring him.
In the end, Democratic efforts failed. Thomas ignored Democratic objections and pushed the pension bill through his committee. The resolution to criticize him failed by a vote of 170-143, and the bill was sent back to committee.