Louise Slaughter Set House Rules, and Played by Her Own

Louise Slaughter Set House Rules, and Played by Her Own

- in House of Representatives

That is not how speakers of one party typically talk about one of their chief adversaries in the other, even in times of grief. But Ms. Slaughter, whose funeral is set for Friday in Rochester, had earned it.

“We have some very divisive battles in the Rules Committee, but I think she genuinely liked and appreciated everyone on that committee,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, who served alongside Ms. Slaughter on the panel for 17 years. “We’d have these big fights and she would be asking someone, ‘How’s your son, your father, your mother?’ and tell them to try her homemade cures.”

“But when the gavel went down, she was a fighter,” said Mr. McGovern, who would have been remiss had he not mentioned Ms. Slaughter regularly showing up with home-baked pies. “She had this talent where she was determined and forceful, but she also had a sense of humor and knew how to charm people and get her point across. She was very, very effective.”

Tensions can run high at meetings of the Rules Committee, one of the original committees of the House and the forum where the majority party gets to exercise its muscle in setting the parameters of floor debate.

With its 9-to-4 membership breakdown, it is heavily weighted toward the majority, and the minority can often get angry and frustrated as majority lawmakers essentially fix the debate to their advantage. It often meets at odd hours and in rushed circumstances, exacerbating the partisan sniping. Both as chairwoman and the top member of the minority, Ms. Slaughter found ways to keep things on an even keel.


Ms. Slaughter during a Rules Committee hearing in 2011. She remains the only woman to have led the committee.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

“She was a force to be reckoned with who always brought her spunk, fire and dynamic leadership to every meeting,” said Representative Pete Sessions, Republican of Texas, who now leads the panel and jousted with Ms. Slaughter for years. “Louise was a fearless leader, deeply committed to her constituents, and a dear friend.” He added that he would always “cherish our friendship, camaraderie and, of course, her rhubarb pie.”

Perhaps Ms. Slaughter’s biggest moment in the limelight was during House machinations over the health care bill in 2010. The loss of a crucial 60th vote in the Senate with the death of Edward M. Kennedy had handcuffed House Democrats who had no choice but to pass a Senate bill with some provisions they didn’t like if they wanted to send a bill to the White House. To limit the political pain, Democrats cooked up an approach that would have essentially deemed the bill passed under what is known in Congress as a self-executing rule, allowing Democrats to avoid a direct vote on those objectionable provisions.

Though Republicans had done the same thing in the past, they howled and mocked Ms. Slaughter with catchy phrases such as “Slaughter House Rules.” Democrats eventually came up with another approach, but Republicans continued to complain, leading the plain-spoken Ms. Slaughter to fire back that their convoluted dispute over procedure was just subterfuge.

“In reality, it’s about blocking much-needed health care reform in this nation,” she said. “Those who oppose the process don’t want any debate or votes on health care itself. They just want to make reform go away.”

In recent years, one of her top priorities was an ethics measure intended to prevent lawmakers and other federal officials from profiting in the stock market from inside knowledge. This was one instance that cost her some friends in the House. Representative Chris Collins, a Republican from a neighboring New York district, described her to Fox News as a “despicable human being” after she complained to House ethics watchdogs about his efforts on behalf of a biotech company in which he owned stock.

Ms. Slaughter, the oldest member of the House at her death, had been weighing re-election and was being encouraged to run again and perhaps regain her chairmanship should Democrats take back the House. Mr. McGovern said her energy and optimism remained high.

“She genuinely loved this institution, she loved Congress and she cared deeply about people and policy,” he said. “Some people hang around here and get tired. I think she enjoyed her job up to the very last day she was here. She had a lot more to give.”

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