Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, one of nearly 100 Republican members of Congress who have come back to Washington to demand a vote on a comprehensive energy bill, held up a sign Tuesday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office number on it and pointed toward the closed doors of the House chamber.
“We’re having people call this number and say, ‘Speaker Pelosi, Open those doors. Call us back into session and allow us to vote on a comprehensive energy plan.’”
It was a moment typical of the untypical political theater that has gripped the nation’s capital over the past two days, and the Republicans were enjoying every minute of it.
“What’s happening right now is completely unprecedented,” Rep. Mike Pence told bloggers who had been invited to meet Republican leaders in the office of Minority Leader John Boehner.
Pence and other top Republicans said that they were “surprised” at how the impromptu protest that began on Friday, when Pelosi gaveled the House into an election-season recess, snowballed into a movement of outrage that has rocked voters from coast to coast.
Since then, Republican members of Congress have come back from their districts to occupy the House chamber so they can talk about the bipartisan energy bill that Pelosi refuses to bring to a vote, even though the House speaker pulled the plug on the microphones and the lights and ordered C-SPAN to turn off its TV cameras.
“Members are coming back to Capitol Hill, leaving behind their families, to take a stand for energy independence,” Pence said.
At times on Tuesday, the third day of the Republican protest, nearly all of the chamber's 435 seats were filled with members, constituents, and tourists as lawmakers tried their best to project their voices without microphones to be heard.
“One woman told me she had driven two and a half hours just to be here,” said Colorado Rep. Marilyn Musgrave.
Monday, the Capitol police attempted to bar people who were visiting the Capitol building from entering the normally closed corridor leading to the Republican cloakroom, a tiny railroad-car type of an anteroom with a tiny kitchenette that leads onto the rear of the House floor.
So members of Congress went roaming the halls of the neighboring congressional office buildings, and personally escorted groups of constituents onto the floor so they could hear the Republican protest firsthand.
“Welcome to the people’s house,” Hensarling said when his turn came to speak in the well of the House on Tuesday.
Just over 100 people were sitting in the House chamber in the simple leather arm chairs normally occupied by the members of Congress. They erupted into applause again and again.
“Speaker Pelosi doesn’t understand in the salons of San Francisco the pain that Americans are feeling,” Hensarling drawled.
“This is America. It is not the Soviet Union. We want an up-and-down vote” on the American Energy Act, a comprehensive bill that not only calls for offshore drilling, but provides incentives for scores of other alternative energy programs and development.
Alluding to the fact that he was speaking without a microphone and without a camera, Hensarling concluded: “Nancy Pelosi cannot turn off the voice and the will of the American people.”
The crowd burst into cheers and gave Hensarling a standing ovation. It felt like a cross between a campaign rally, and what one might imagine Congress to have been like 150 years ago, in the era before television.
“They certainly gave me a better reception than I normally get from my colleagues,” he told Newsmax as he left the floor a few minutes later.
Rep. Louis Gohmert, also of Texas, told reporters later that the rolling House speeches and the effort to snag tourists to listen was no political stunt. “How stupid to play a political stunt in a chamber where we can’t bring TV cameras and microphones,” he said.
“We were deprived of the chance to demand energy for our constituents. And that’s why we’re on the floor. It’s no political stunt.”
Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona accused Pelosi and the Democrats of engaging “in a scam, because they say they represent the little guy in America, but the little guy in America is the one who is getting hurt the most” by high gas prices.
Last year, Americans spent $433 billion on foreign oil, much of which was going to “countries that hate us or who aren’t our friends,” Shadegg said.
“We need to be producing more American-made energy,” Shadegg argued. “Nancy Pelosi and Mr. Obama are saying, we would rather pander to our environmentalist, elitist base and leave gas prices higher,” he added. “They’re saying to the least among us, too bad, you lose.”
Earlier in the day, Sen. John McCain told reporters that he was thinking of joining the Republicans inside the unlit House chamber in a show of solidarity.
Shadegg said he welcomed a visit from McCain and would “personally escort” him onto the floor, as required by House rules.
The Republicans are hoping to awaken the imagination of the American people through the rolling protests, as high gas prices are having a ripple effect on the economy.
Shadegg, Pence, and other top congressional Republicans believe that enough Democrats support their comprehensive “all of the above” energy bill that it would pass. “And that’s why Speaker Pelosi won’t allow us to vote,” they said.
Asked if they favored having President Bush call Congress back in an emergency session, Rep. Gohmert of Texas warned that Pelosi could simply gavel the session to a close the very minute that they convened.
“It’s going to take cooperation with the lady in charge. She has to cooperate for this to go forward,” Rep. Gohmert said.
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