Two dozen Republicans kicked off their second day of protests with an array of sometimes inartful, off-topic or histrionic floor speeches ranging in topic from John Quincy Adams’ views on slavery to a shout-out to Moses.
“Madam Speaker, let my people vote!” said Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), adding a biblical flourish as Monday’s action came to a close.
But the GOP lawmakers, many of them among the most conservative in the Republican Conference, clearly felt energized by their demand that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) call the House back into session to vote on offshore oil drilling. By the end of the day, Republicans were threatening to keep their uprising going throughout the week and possibly into next week, although the chances of that seem slim.
Republicans are trying to cash in on the positive press coverage they received on Friday when Reps. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.) led a spontaneous revolt to protest the Democrats’ decision to adjourn the House for the five-week August recess without giving the minority party a chance to speak out on rising gas prices. Even after Democrats turned off the lights and microphones, and with TV cameras shut down, Republicans kept talking and chanting, “Drill, drill, drill!”
GOP leaders, including conservative talk radio hosts, seized on Friday’s protest as a sign that Republicans were doing something — anything — to address an issue that has risen to the top of the nation’s economic agenda. With large majorities of U.S. voters favoring an expansion of oil drilling, even in offshore areas once considered off-limits, Republicans hope they have tapped a vein of public support that may help rescramble the political landscape in November, even if some members risk looking goofy in the process.
“It can’t hurt; it may help,” acknowledged one senior GOP aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’s great for the base, and we needed to do something for them.” Recent polling has shown pro-Democratic voters are far more enthusiastic about supporting presumptive presidential nominee Barack Obama and Democratic lawmakers than their Republican counterparts are about their apparent nominee John McCain and Republican incumbents.
While Friday’s impromptu House session featured members jumping off airplanes and rushing back to the House floor in shorts and sandals to thunderous applause from the visitors’ galleries, it was a more subdued affair on Monday. Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) opened with a prayer, and Republicans recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Then it was open season on Pelosi’s policies.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) delivered a speech next to a giant photo of Pelosi, with the words “I am trying to save the planet” underneath, tweaking the speaker for a comment she made in an interview with Politico.
By refusing to hold a vote on domestic drilling because of environmental concerns, King said Pelosi has decided that “saving the planet is worth more than saving the Homo sapiens.”
“On Friday, Speaker Pelosi turned out the lights in the people’s House,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) told reporters. “Now we’re in the midst of the ‘Pelosi Shutdown.’ She’s shutting down the people’s House, and if we’re not careful, her energy policies will shut down the economic engine of America. Republicans are saying we will not allow that to happen.”
Price said Republicans “demand a vote on American energy for Americans,” a slogan he repeated over and over on the House floor as he acted as the unofficial master of ceremonies, intoducing each member who rose to speak.
Some of the subsequent speeches struggled to stay relevant to the topic at hand.
Rep. Donald A. Manzullo (R-Ill.), one of the stars of Friday’s session, launched into a long soliloquy on John Quincy Adams, likening his fight against slavery to the controversy over an offshore drilling vote. In an interview afterwards, Manzullo referred to the Middle Ages and the rise of the West as justification for a floor vote on offshore drilling. But he played well with the crowd.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) railed about the fact that the Cuban government “has given a lease to the Chinese” to conduct offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Wolf pointed out that the Chinese have provided economic and military support to the government of Sudan, and he attempted to tie the lack of offshore drilling in the United States to the genocide in Darfur, although most audience members — tourists and staff — seemed perplexed by his argument.
As they did on Friday, GOP members repeatedly encouraged the stray tourists brought onto the House floor to call Pelosi and demand a vote.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) told the crowd. “It is time for you all to squeak.”
There were also some humorous moments. When the lights were turned up at 10:35 a.m. in the dimly lit chamber, about 30 minutes into the session, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who was speaking at the time, joked, “Someone must be drilling somewhere in America.” That remark brought laughs from the crowd and his colleagues.
By midday, House Republicans were vowing to continue their talkathon on the floor “as long as it takes,” claiming they would continue their protest indefinitely if Pelosi does not allow a vote soon.
“There are plans underway to be here into next week,” said Pence, one of the organizers of the protest. By noon Monday, 24 members were already back in Washington, and lawmakers said reinforcements were on the way.
Republican Rep. Peter J. Roskam of Illinois said he got the call on Sunday afternoon and drove through the night, pulling into the Capitol just before daybreak.
“We loaded up the minivan just like the Griswolds,” said Roskam, referencing the classic Chevy Chase movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
The floor protests did not originate with GOP leaders, but they have quickly jumped on the bandwagon. Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Minority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, neither of whom is expected in Washington until Wednesday at least, used the episode to strengthen their standing among conservatives. Boehner, Blunt and other GOP leaders sent an “open letter” to Pelosi asking that she reconvene the House immediately for a vote.
Pelosi on Sunday dismissed the GOP floor protests as “the war dance of the handmaidens of the oil companies,” and senior Democratic aides repeatedly circulated charts showing that the Republicans on the floor had received millions of dollars in contributions from oil companies, their employees and lobbyists during their congressional careers.
“This Republican hoax is unworthy of the serious debate we must have to relieve the pain of consumers at the pump and to promote energy independence,” Pelosi said in a statement.
The power of the energy issue was also on display Monday in the presidential contest. After Obama signaled this weekend that he was open to a vote allowing more drilling as part of a broader energy package — a stance that puts him at odds with Pelosi — McCain said Obama should call on Congress to return from recess and vote on a drilling amendment. In the past, McCain had opposed expanded offshore drilling.
“Anybody who says that we can achieve energy independence without using and increasing these existing energy resources either doesn’t havethe experience to understand the challenge that we face or isn’t giving the American people some straight talk,” McCain said during a stop in Pennsylvania.
Obama countered with calls to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, dramatically increase production of hybrid vehicles and mandate renewable energy.