WASHINGTON - Choking back tears, Republican Rep. Bill Thomas of California, one of Congress' most powerful and quick-tempered members, told a hushed House chamber yesterday that he exhibited "poor judgment" in calling the police last week on Democrats.
"You deserve better judgment from me, and you'll get it," the usually acerbic chairman of the Ways and Means Committee told his colleagues. "Because of my poor judgment, those outside the House who want to trivialize, marginalize and debase this institution were given an opportunity to do so."
The extraordinary speech came amid Democratic calls for an apology for Friday's events, particularly Thomas' attempts to use the Capitol Police to break up an impromptu meeting that Democrats called in the middle of a committee session to protest what they said was their exclusion from any role in formulating legislation.
That day featured threats and name-calling; it ended with an at-times absurd and at-times deadly serious floor debate about abuse of power.
Thomas, whose words fell short of an apology, said he stands by his decision to call in law enforcement to restore order in his committee after a partisan shouting match broke out, but he said calling police to evict Democrats from their meeting room was "just plain stupid."
The mea culpa followed two failed attempts by Democrats to win passage of a resolution criticizing Thomas for his conduct and directing that the measure under consideration Friday - a pension bill co-sponsored by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, and Ohio Rep. Rob Portman, a Republican - be returned to the committee for a new vote.
Thomas' remarks drew a standing ovation from Republicans and Democrats alike, but deep rifts remain between the parties after Friday's incident, which Democrats say was just the most egregious example of Republicans' pattern of shutting them out of House action.
Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means panel, responding to Thomas, said: "The majority has the responsibility to lead. ... But the minority has the right to be respected."
Thomas' remarks came as Democrats were delivering on threats that Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California made Monday to make this "the week from hell" for House Republican leaders hoping to adjourn tomorrow for a 5 1/2 -week break.
Democrats used procedural tactics yesterday to slow work to a crawl to protest Republicans' refusal to speed enactment of legislation allowing low-income families excluded from this year's tax cut to receive an increase in the child tax credit.
And while some lawmakers said the House now seems willing to move beyond Friday's ugliness, many Democrats are not satisfied.
They dispute Republicans' stance that police were called because of the verbal brawl in committee between Rep. Pete Stark, a California Democrat, and Rep. Scott McInnis, a Colorado Republican. Law enforcement was called, Democrats say, only to disrupt their meeting and trample their rights.