WASHINGTON – An angry melee July 17 in which Ways and Means Chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) called out the Capitol police to evict Democratic House members from a congressional meeting room is part of a ruthless Republican “power grab,” warn lawmakers, labor, and other grassroots advocates.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said the Democrats are “mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore. … The idea that a member of Congress would call the Capitol police on other members performing their constitutional duties is deplorable.”

The incident erupted in the Ways and Means Committee when the Republicans suddenly introduced a 91-page substitute for a pension “reform” bill the committee had been drafting for months.

To slow the runaway train, the Democrats requested that it be read into the record line by line, a parliamentary maneuver that can be blocked only by a unanimous vote of the committee. As the clerk read the bill, the Democrats left the hearing room to strategize on how to stop this legislative coup. They left behind Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) to monitor the proceeding. But as soon as the Democrats were out of earshot, Thomas called for a unanimous vote to suspend the reading.

Thomas ignored Stark’s “no” vote and announced that the committee would begin mark-up of the substitute. When Stark protested, Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) told him to “shut up.”

Stark shot back, “Oh, you think you are big enough to take me, you little wimp?”

Thomas meanwhile sent his chief of staff to evict the Democratic lawmakers from the committee library. The Democrats refused and Thomas called Capitol police to evict them. When they arrived, the police said it was a matter for the House Sergeant at Arms to settle and he, in turn, said it was an internal matter for the committee to resolve. By that time Stark had joined his Democratic colleagues in the library. The Republicans then voted unanimously to report to the House floor the pension takeaway bill.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution to censure Thomas. “It is clear that the Democrats must draw a line in the sand on the repression of our rights in this Congress,” she said during a stormy debate on the House floor.

Stark scorned GOP charges that he had threatened a colleague with bodily harm. “Chairman Thomas’ behavior today should not be allowed in a democracy. It is reminiscent of a police state, not America,” Stark said.

A senior staff member of the Ways and Means Committee told the World, “In my years on Capitol Hill, I have never seen anything like that, Republicans calling out the police on members from the other party.” The staff member said Thomas had vowed to cut the dollar value of the pension bill from $230 billion to $50 billion. “The substitute they approved provides $48 billion. He more than achieved his goal.”

At stake in the legislation are changes in federal pension law which for decades set the statutory rate for calculating pensions to the 30-year Treasury Bond. Corporations demanded, and got, a rate pegged to corporate bonds, saving them tens of billions in pension contributions. The American Association of Retired Persons warned that workers who depend on lump sum pension payouts could lose 25 percent of their benefits under the GOP scam.

Bruce Bostick, a United Steelworkers organizer assigned to the bitter struggle to restore pensions stripped from thousands of steelworkers, including himself, told the World, “It is particularly revealing that they had to use police state tactics to ram this bill through. They call it ‘pension reform’ but what it really means is that well-to-do people can put more of their money in tax shelters while allowing rich corporations to underfund their pension funds for workers. It’s right in line with what George W. Bush is trying to do to retirees.”

Connie Engholm, Midwest regional organizer for the Alliance of Retired Americans, an AFL-CIO-affiliated retiree group, said, “It’s part of the epidemic of retirees losing their pensions. We’re all going to be affected by their attempt to turn Social Security into a savings plan through the stock market, their plans to privatize Medicare. These cutbacks are an outright crime against the people who worked to build this country.”

Andrew Wheat, a senior researcher at Texans for Public Justice in Austin, told the World the incident reminded him of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s calling up Homeland Security agents to track down Democratic members of the Texas Legislature a couple of months ago.

They had fled to Oklahoma to deny a quorum needed by the Republicans for a session to redraw the congressional district lines in Texas to give DeLay seven more safe Republican districts. “It was a clever move by the Democrats to run to Oklahoma,” Wheat said. “A lot of this hardball politics is DeLay, DeLay, Delay. He’s a ruthlessly cunning individual who understands the connection of corporate money and politics.

“The goal of DeLay and [Bush political operator] Karl Rove is to eliminate any checks and balances of any kind. Their credo is: ‘We’re going to crush anybody who stands in our way.’ It is very dangerous.”

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com