House Republicans on Thursday unhinged an $80 billion technology bill after forcing a vote that Democrats said would expose their members to election-year attack ads claiming they support pornography.
Democrats had to pull the bill after half their members voted for the GOP measure that, in addition to severely shrinking the technology bill, put them on record as supporting the firing of government workers who view or download pornography on the job.
It was the second time in a week that Republicans used such a tactic to their advantage. Last week they brought about major changes to the Cash for Caulkers bill to subsidize people who buy energy-efficient products for their homes by attaching a provision barring building contractors from hiring child molesters.
"You should be embarrassed," House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., a moderate who works well with Republicans, shouted at the end of the debate. He said Republicans had stuck in a "little bitty provision that means nothing that's going to gut the entire bill."
Republicans cited recent reports of employees of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Science Foundation — a main benefactor of the bill — using computers to watch pornography on company time.
Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., said an NSF decision to suspend the porn watchers for 10 days was unacceptable. "If you think a couple days of suspension, a reprimand, a transfer, is the right response, then vote against this motion."
In the end, 121 out of 246 Democrats and all but one of 172 voting Republicans voted for it.
Gordon said that when it became evident they were going to lose, he told his colleagues to vote for the GOP measure to avoid later problems. The obvious purpose, he said, was to go to the districts of members voting against it and "run ads saying that they were pro-pornography."
Republicans saw it differently. "House Republicans successfully amended the bill to eliminate costly new programs and freeze funding at current levels until Congress has established a balanced budget," said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., head of a group of the most conservative House members.
The original bill would have approved some $85 billion over five years to double funding for basic research at the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy's Office of Science, extend grants and loan guarantees to small businesses working with emerging technologies, and promote science and math education in schools.
While the majority Democrats can control what amendments are allowed on the floor, Republicans made use of a practice where the minority gets one shot at changing a bill before it goes to a final vote. Besides the pornography provision, their motion shrunk the bill from five years to three, eliminated all new programs in the bill and froze spending for existing programs.
"Republicans again refused to work together to help the middle class and continue creating jobs," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "Instead they chose to play a political game with a gotcha amendment intended solely to block."
Hoyer said he hoped to bring the bill back to the floor next week, but there was no indication of how Democrats would deal with the pornography issue.
Gordon said that, after the "caulkers" vote last week, he tried to head off GOP maneuvers by inserting a provision that barred using companies that employ convicted child molesters.
The situation was far different in 2007 when Congress passed a similar version of the bill, called the COMPETES Act. Then, 367 House members voted for it, and it passed unanimously in the Senate.
Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., a science committee member, said he had been in Congress 12 years "and I have rarely seen something as foolish and desperate and destructive to the country's future as this measure." Republicans, he said, had "used this incredibly important, incredibly positive measure to try to set up attack ads for the next campaign."
The bill is H.R. 5116.
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