WASHINGTON — The Republican trying to shepherd the GOP's Affordable Care Act repeal bill through a key committee got about eight words into his opening statement Wednesday when Democrat Frank Pallone interrupted.
"Mr. Chairman! Mr. Chairman!" the Jersey Shore-area congressman called out.
As the top Democrat on the committee, he wanted five minutes for leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to speak and three minutes for rank-and-file members, not the three minutes and one minute allotted.
When the Republican majority shot down that request, Pallone jumped in again. Now he wanted more time for the second-ranking Democrat to speak. He was overridden again.
Then he raised a "point of parliamentary inquiry," demanding that he be recognized even as Republicans tried to get the hearing moving.
So it went.
As Republicans began their work to advance a bill that would undo one of the Democrats' most cherished accomplishments, Pallone played the petulant backseat passenger unwilling to quietly go along.
A liberal with roughly three decades in Congress, Pallone was at the forefront of his party's efforts Wednesday and Thursday to fight Republicans' rollback. As the top Democrat on one of the two key committees handling the GOP bill, he may be in the spotlight for days as the point man picking at the controversial proposal.
Wednesday signaled his intentions to be an all-around pest.
The lanky and normally languid Pallone, from Long Branch, questioned Republicans on every procedural step. Democrats forced committee staff to read aloud the entirety of the piece of the bill before them — 66 pages of subtitles and legalese. That took an hour.
The committee debate could into the weekend. Democrats said Wednesday that they had close to 200 amendments to offer.
"Well, let me ask just one more question," Pallone said at one point.
"This was your last question," responded the panel's chairman, Rep. Greg Walden (R., Ore.), noting that Pallone had said his previous question was his last one.
Pallone's aggressive posture, as well as his losses in procedural votes, reflected both the intense fight Democrats plan to wage and its possible futility in the face of a Republican majority. The GOP plan seems to face more threats from Republicans breaking ranks than it does from Democrats.
In an interview during a break, Pallone said his goal was to at least show the flaws in a bill that he argues Republicans are jamming through without scrutiny.
"The Republicans keep talking about what they don't like in the Affordable Care Act, but they never talk about how what they're proposing today is going to improve it," Pallone said. "In almost every case I can tell you that what they're going to do would make it worse."
Republicans argue that their bill would erase a law that they blame for rising insurance premiums and decreased consumer choices.
"This is a very contentious issue, and it does seem to engender partisan vigor," said Rep. Leonard Lance (R., N.J.), a member of the panel who has known Pallone for roughly 30 years. (Lance said he would "likely" support the bill.)
Walden, initially showing frustration, eventually took on the air of a parent gently trying to move things along while the kids kicked the back of his seat.
"We'll get through this," he said. "Let's just all settle down here."
Hearings in the committee and another key panel, the Ways and Means Committee, Wednesday gave rank-and-file lawmakers their first chances to get their hands on the sweeping health bill.
"I think it's the appropriate framework through which to bring about the kind of reforms that we need," said Rep. Ryan Costello (R., Pa.), a member of the committee from Chester County, becoming one of the first local lawmakers to endorse the proposal. He said the measure would "rein in health-care costs and get us on a path forward where we don't have government-centered, government-controlled health care."
Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat from the Pittsburgh area, read a letter from Gov. Wolf warning that the bill "would disrupt health-care access and coverage for millions of Pennsylvanians."
Between sparring, Pallone leaned back in his chair to consult with aides and walked the dais to strategize with fellow Democrats. With their microphones off, Pallone and Walden spoke, frequently laughing together.
The irony is that Pallone, 65, has been dogged by a reputation of being too soft. The longtime representative passed up a chance to run for the Senate in 2002, leading some to question whether he had the guts for a fight.
Even as he jabbed at Republicans on Wednesday, he delivered his sharp words in a soft, easy tone, reading directly from notes. He launched his objections while propping his head on his hand.
"I wish he had a little bit more prosecutorial energy, but he'll do his job and he does it fine," said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D., N.J.), who hailed Pallone's persistence and called him "a brother."
Pallone ran for Senate in 2013, finishing a distant second to Cory Booker in a four-way Democratic primary. Returned to the House, he showed some appetite for battle, winning a nasty internal struggle for the top seat on the powerful committee, defeating a rival backed by top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi.