WASHINGTON — Democrats in the House of Representatives lost another chink in their good-government armor Friday, pressuring a fellow Democrat to drop an eco-friendly effort to restrict taxpayer-funded congressional car leases.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., had hoped to require House members to lease hybrids and other alternative-fuel vehicles if they wanted taxpayers to foot the bill. He'd planned to introduce his proposal as an amendment to a spending bill.
Cleaver was inspired by a McClatchy Newspapers investigation last year that found House members spend more than $1 million a year on taxpayer-funded car leases, plus insurance and gas. At the time, 136 of the 435 House members, from both parties, leased cars on the taxpayers' dime. Many drove expensive luxury cars and gas-guzzling SUVs. The Senate doesn't permit the practice.
But other Democrats told Cleaver on Wednesday to withdraw his amendment, minutes before he was to present it to the Rules Committee — the first step in sending it to the House floor.
Congressional Democrats have seen their approval ratings plummet to the mid-20s amid public frustration over the lack of progress on their promised agenda. Republicans also have hammered Democrats for failing to be as transparent as promised in earmark changes on spending bills.
Republicans pounced Friday, criticizing Democrats for being hypocritical.
"This new majority refused to allow Mr. Cleaver the opportunity to even have his amendment heard, to even have it debated here," Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., lamented on the House floor.
Cleaver's effort would have been an important symbolic move, said Keith Ashdown of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense.
"This bill is definitely based on what I understand the priorities of the Democratic Party to be," Ashdown said. "You'd think this would go front and center on this bill. But they're all enjoying the perks of office. Many of them must still like cruising in SUVs."
Democrats did manage to put in the spending bill a directive to study the possibility of making fair-trade coffee more widely available in House office buildings. They also voted to have the House gym stay open longer.
Cleaver wouldn't say who pressured him to drop the amendment, other than to say "people in leadership. Not (Majority Leader) Steny Hoyer or (Speaker) Nancy Pelosi."
Cleaver and his staff were told that the amendment could conflict with Pelosi's just-announced "Greening of the Capitol" initiative, according to spokesman Danny Rotert. Among the elements of Pelosi's initiative: Operate the House in a carbon-neutral manner.
Leaders also said they didn't want any Democratic amendments to the spending bill, Rotert said. Ultimately, one Democratic amendment was allowed: directing the House to use energy-efficient light bulbs.
House Rules Committee spokesman John Santore defended the rejection of the amendment, saying Cleaver's measure presented technical problems because some states had a limited number of alternative refueling stations.
Santore apparently overlooked the fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans have bought hybrids and have no problem filling them up — with unleaded gas.
Cleaver, serving his second-term from Kansas City, reluctantly agreed to withdraw his amendment. But he complained to the Rules Committee about the process, saying the idea deserved to be debated on the House floor.
"We set ourselves up for looking ugly on this," Cleaver said. "Those are the things that happen when you rush on legislation and fail to have a dialogue. I can understand the Republicans taking advantage of it."
Cleaver said he'd continue to push his bill, most likely by including it on legislation from the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, of which he is a member.
"This hurts the caucus more than it hurts me," Cleaver said. "I've got people on both sides saying this is the right thing."
(David Goldstein contributed.)