By Russell Berman - 01/06/11 09:36 PM EST
GOP Reps. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) and Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) cast their first votes of the 112th Congress on Thursday despite the fact they were technically not members of Congress at the time.
The two Republicans missed the official swearing-in ceremony on the House floor Wednesday because they were attending a separate event for Fitzpatrick elsewhere in the Capitol.
According to sources, the situation came about when the Speaker's office discovered a photo of Sessions holding his hand up while watching a television showing his fellow colleagues taking the oath on the floor.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) administered the oath to both lawmakers on the floor on Thursday, but Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) abruptly recessed a hearing they attended while officials figured out a way to make the votes that Sessions and Fitzpatrick recorded count.
Boehner’s office was seeking an agreement with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to offer a unanimous consent request that would retroactively record the two men’s votes.
After reconvening the committee hearing, Dreier explained that officials consulted Thomas Jefferson’s congressional manual, which states that a congressman “is to be within proximity of the Speaker of the House” when taking the oath of office. He said the Rules Committee would proceed with approving a floor procedure for the healthcare repeal bill but that the full House would have to agree to rectify the Sessions/Fitzpatrick error.
The incident led to an extraordinary exchange between Dreier and Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the panel’s top Democrat, over whether the votes that Sessions recorded had jeopardized the legality of the entire committee proceeding. “We feel very suspicious – not suspicious, that’s not the right word. We feel very anxious,” Slaughter said. “After all, this is the very day we read the Constitution on the floor.”
“We’re very much concerned that this violates the Constitution,” she added.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) noted that for a period of time on Thursday, Sessions “was technically a non-member presiding over this hearing.”
Dreier was contrite and said at one point, “Your concern is absolutely right.” But he plowed ahead with the hearing and pledged that on the House floor Friday “we are going to address every single one of these issues.”
The episode was embarrassing for both the individual lawmakers and the Republican majority -- just in its second day running the House; Sessions is the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and Fitzpatrick, who'll likely be a Dem target in 2012, read aloud from the Constitution on the floor Thursday.
A spokeswoman for Sessions, Emily Davis, issued the following statement: “During the swearing in of the 112th Congress, Congressman Sessions stated the oath publicly in the Capitol but was not on the House floor. To ensure that all constitutional and House requirements are fulfilled, Congressman Sessions officially took the oath of office this afternoon from the House floor. Public records and votes will be adjusted accordingly.”
Fitzpatrick spokesman Darren Smith said: “Yesterday, at the time the oath of office was administered, Congressman Fitzpatrick was in the Capitol Building meeting with constituents from Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District. He took the oath of office at that time. When the oath was administered, Congressman Fitzpatrick had already signed the written oath of office provided by the Clerk of the House. Today, after speaking with the House Parliamentarian, out of an abundance of caution, Congressman Fitzpatrick was re-administered the oath of office by the Speaker. The public record will be adjusted accordingly.”
A Web site promoting his event in the Capitol Visitor’s Center said it cost $30 per person, but fundraisers are not permitted in the Capitol complex. The event was billed as "Mike Fitzpatrick's swearing in celebration."
"There was no fee to attend the event," Smith said. "Some people paid $30 for bus transportation to Washington, but the event was open to anyone who showed up, including several hundred people who drove down on their own."
“Perhaps they should have read the Constitution yesterday rather than today,” a senior Democratic aide gleefully noted.
"You know, all this adherence to the Constitution has led to us[thinking] you should follow the Constitution," Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) told The Hill during the recess of the Rules Committee.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) pounced on the incident, sending out the text of a House rule citing the constitutional requirement that members take the oath of office on the first day of a new Congress.
“When Congressmen-elect Pete Sessions and Mike Fitzpatrick participated in reading parts of the U.S. Constitution on the House floor, Speaker Boehner should have given them Article 6, which requires members of Congress to be sworn in,” DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said. “Jokes aside, Congressmen-elect Pete Sessions and Mike Fitzpatrick’s actions raise serious questions: What in the world was more important to Congressmen-elect Pete Sessions and Mike Fitzpatrick than taking the oath of office, committing to support and defend the U.S. Constitution? Why did Speaker Boehner and [the] House Republican leadership allow two people who were not sworn members of Congress to vote and speak on the House floor? Republicans have spent a lot of time over the past two days proselytizing about House rules, but they don’t seem very keen on actually following the rules.”
-- Molly K. Hooper contributed reporting.
— This article was updated at 5:53 p.m.