By Russell Berman - 03/06/13 04:56 PM EST
House Democrats on Wednesday walked out of a committee vote on Republican legislation to consolidate federal job-training programs, complaining that the GOP majority shut them out in a politically motivated rush to move the bill to the House floor.
The House Education and the Workforce Committee scheduled a meeting to mark up and vote on the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act, which Republican leaders have scheduled for a floor vote next week.
Republicans have touted the bill as following through on a proposal by President Obama in his 2012 State of the Union address, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) highlighted the measure in a high-profile speech last month as part of his “Making Life Work” agenda for the GOP.
But Democrats and advocacy groups say the GOP consolidation plan goes too far and that Republicans on the committee made no attempt to work with Democrats on what had previously been a bipartisan issue.
“We didn’t come to this decision lightly,” Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.), John Tierney (D-Mass.) and Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas) said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we viewed boycotting this proceeding as our only alternative after many months of repeatedly requesting bipartisan negotiations and being rebuffed by committee Republicans.”
Miller, the top Democrat on the committee and its former chairman, did not attend the hearing at all, having flown back to California on Tuesday afternoon. The public meeting was one of just a few that were held as scheduled on Wednesday in the midst of a winter storm in Washington.
“The Republican bill has scant support and has garnered significant opposition,” said the three Democrats, who have sponsored their own legislation to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act. “Democrats can only come to the conclusion that this bill is being advanced for political reasons, not to make the workforce investment system work better. It would have been a dereliction of duty to continue to participate.”
The Democrats had previously called on committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) to postpone the markup and work with Democrats to rewrite the bill.
The House GOP’s campaign arm did not take kindly to the Democratic protest. The National Republican Congressional Committee issued a statement blasting Tierney, a top GOP target in 2012, comparing him to a “high school student in a bad ’80s sitcom.”
“John Tierney’s actions today are pathetic and embarrassing,” NRCC spokesman Ian Prior said. “Walking out of a committee vote because he can’t get his way is not only disrespectful to the institution of Congress, but it is a slap in the face to his constituents that pay him to vote, not to throw petulant tantrums to score political points in Washington D.C.”
During the hearing, Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) blamed the rush to the bill on Cantor’s desire to schedule a fast floor vote on a priority issue for him.
“What should be a process designed to produce important reforms for our nation’s working families is now designed and timed to facilitate the Republican leadership’s public relations efforts to rebrand their party,” the Democrats said. “This is a true pity.”
Led by Republicans, the committee advanced the legislation in the Democrats’ absence, and Kline dismissed their protest as “political theater.”
“Today Democrats abdicated their responsibility and demonstrated their unwillingness to engage in the legislative process,” he said. “Last year the committee debated and approved numerous amendments offered by the minority which helped improve the bill. We stood ready to do the same today. Rather than present their ideas, Democrats offered a rote defense of the status quo and political theatrics. Both are a disservice workers, employers, and job seekers.”
Cantor issued a statement on the committee vote that made no mention of the Democrats' boycott.
“Millions of Americans are struggling to find work or change careers, but don’t have the resources to do so,” he said. “Many businesses are looking to hire, but are having trouble finding individuals with the skills they need for the jobs available. That’s why the House is moving forward with solutions to strengthen and improve our federal workforce development programs and help more middle class workers.”
Asked about the walk-out, Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper said, “Instead of playing politics, let’s help working families.”
— This story was updated at 3:10 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.