Towns calls truce after committee lockout

Towns, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked Issa, the ranking member of the panel, for a meeting at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday afternoon to see if they can resolve a bitter dispute over Issa’s quest for a tough investigation into Countrywide Mortgage’s VIP program.

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The meeting comes one day after Towns literally locked Republicans on the committee out of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee room by re-keying the doors in order to keep them from meeting when Democrats aren’t there. Republicans decried the move as retaliation for publicizing Democrats’ resistance to investigating Countrywide.

Issa welcomed the meeting but says he doesn’t know if he and Towns can reach common ground unless the chairman agrees to issue subpoenas to Countrywide.

“His chief of staff asked for a meeting so we can try to work this out,” Issa said. “We’ll see if we can.”

Until an agreement is reached, Issa has informed Democrats on the panel that they reserve the right to continue to try to force a vote on the Countrywide subpoenas at all full-committee and subcommittee meetings. Democrats were bracing for such a vote at the Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Issa, however, said he is holding off on the subpoena issue until after he and Towns meet. The two could hash out some form of truce in which Towns agrees to investigate Countrywide, and Issa concedes to probe other special favors corporations have bestowed on Republicans.

For months Towns has refused GOP requests to subpoena records in the case. Last Thursday Republicans, led by Issa, were poised to force an open vote on the subpoenas at a committee markup meeting. The markup was abruptly canceled, with Republicans showing while Democrats’ seats remained empty.

Republicans charged that Towns canceled the meeting to avoid the subpoena vote. A GOP committee staffer captured video of Democrats leaving their separate meeting in private chambers after the markup was supposed to have begun. He spliced the video to other footage of the Democrats’ empty chairs at the hearing room, set it to the tune of “Hit the Road, Jack” and posted it on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s minority Web page, where it remained as of press time.

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Towns’s staffers told Republicans they were unhappy about the presence of the video camera in the hearing room when they were not there. Issa’s spokesman said the Democrats readily acknowledged to Republicans that they changed the locks in retaliation to the videotape of the Democrats’ absence from the business meeting even though committee rules allow meetings to be taped.

Countrywide, now owned by Bank of America, was reported to have given VIP loans and treatment to lawmakers and officials at the federal and local level who were in a position to influence policy affecting the mortgage giant. Issa has repeatedly reminded committee Democrats that Bank of America officials had said they would turn over records on the VIP program — but only in response to a subpoena.

Towns, who received a mortgage loan from Countrywide but insists he was not part of the VIP program, has said he declined to launch an investigation because he does not want to interfere with a Justice Department probe into the matter.