Seat Of Discontent

House Republicans averted a potential new storm over race by dropping a plan to shrink the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, a decision Democrats claimed would have denied a black lawmaker a coveted seat on the panel.

Republicans angrily claimed Wednesday that Democrats created the controversy. They said that even had the panel been reduced by one seat for each party — as GOP leaders initially decided to do — Democrats could still have appointed Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, because one Democrat who served last year retired and another was defeated for re-election.

"They have a chance to put her on. That is a phony argument" that Jones would lose the seat, said Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., before Republicans backed down.

Jones will be the first black woman to ever serve on the committee, Democrats said. The panel, a major prize for lawmakers with its control of the tax code and huge benefit programs like Social Security, will have the same party ratios as it did last year: 24 Republicans and 17 Democrats.

The dustup and speed with which Republicans addressed it underscored the heightened political sensitivities over race following the downfall of former Senate GOP leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who had spoken wistfully about Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential run of 1948. Wednesday's entire incident, from the initial GOP decision to their change of heart, lasted only a few hours.

The struggle also played out across the Capitol, as Senate Democrats threatened to filibuster President Bush's renomination of Charles Pickering of Mississippi to be an appellate court judge. Pickering's nomination died during the last Congress after Democrats raised questions about his racial views.

Civil rights groups said Pickering supported segregation as a young man in Mississippi. Pickering's opponents also pointed to his conservative voting record as a Mississippi state lawmaker and decisions as a judge.

Pickering's supporters, including some Mississippi Democrats and black leaders, said Pickering supported civil rights efforts as far back as the middle 1960s.

The Ways and Means Committee's top Democrat, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, said he believed race played a role in the GOP reversal.

"It becomes too difficult for them, if you look back at Trent Lott, the absence of J.C. Watts, the inability to justify the merit in reducing the size of the committee," said Rangel, who is also black.

Watts, R-Okla., was the only black Republican in Congress before retiring this month.

"It's not the congresswoman's race," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., countered in a brief interview when asked if that was a factor in the GOP's decision to leave the committee's size unchanged.

"They can appoint whoever they want," Hastert said. "That doesn't have anything to do with us."

"It's a sad situation that didn't have to go in that direction. We certainly didn't take it in that direction," said Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, the No. 4 House GOP leader.

Aides from both parties said the problem arose after Hastert earlier told House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that the parties' relative sizes on the committee would remain the same in the new 108th Congress, which began Monday.

But in a meeting early Monday afternoon of House GOP leaders, they voted instead to remove one Republican and one Democratic seat from the panel.

"It's just too big," Thomas told reporters.

Republicans say they unsuccessfully tried reaching Pelosi to tell her of the new decision, but couldn't for about two hours. Before they could, Democrats publicly announced that they had appointed Jones and Rep. Max Sandlin of Texas to the committee.

When Republicans finally told Democrats that the committee would have one fewer seat for each party, Democrats told reporters that Jones would be the one to lose her seat because Sandlin, now in his fourth House term, has seniority.

"Why do we change the rules at the very time we made this historic appointment?" Rangel said at the time.

Asked whether their initial decision made Republicans look racially insensitive, Rangel said, "You'll have to ask that of Senator Lott," adding, "I don't know how those people think."

Democrats also argued that with its 41 members, Ways and Means was already one of the smallest of the House's major committees. The Appropriations Committee, for example, has 64 members. Agriculture has 51, International Relations 49 and Armed Services at least 60 members.

Republicans said they were trying to trim Ways and Means to the smaller, more manageable size it had during much of the 1990s.

Jones, serving her third term, is the first black congresswoman from Ohio. In the last Congress, she served on the banking and small business committees.