The Speaker’s Lobby: Area 51

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

31 March 2009


The Congressional Auditorium is Capitol Hill’s version of Area of 51. Buried deep in the bowels of the newly-minted, subterranean Capitol Visitor’s Center (CVC), the auditorium seemingly isn’t listed on any maps. Cell phone and BlackBerry reception is spotty. The ceiling above the auditorium’s alcove acoustically corrupts normal conversations into a bizarre, underwater-like drone.


It wouldn’t surprise me if compasses spin wildly here like navigational equipment is known to do in the Bermuda Triangle.


This is the classic “undisclosed location” in Washington.


Yet the underground Congressional Auditorium, located two football fields away from the Capitol and near the entrances to the Supreme Court and Library of Congress, is where the House Democratic Caucus welcomed President Obama Monday night for a special meeting.


To make sure their members made the conclave, Democrats may have considered tasking Hansel and Gretel to drop a trail of bread crumbs from the Rotunda or stationed St. Bernards with barrels of Brandy around their necks to rescue lawmakers who got lost along the way.


“Did you get lost?” I asked one New England lawmaker as he entered the CVC from the tunnel connected to the Cannon House Office Building?


“I know where I’m going,” the Congressman insisted impatiently.


But he didn’t.


I watched as the lawmaker made a wrong turn before a squadron of aides positioned along the route intercepted him and pointed him down an escalator.


“They ought to put down those lines on the floor like they do in the airport,” said Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI) as he struggled down a flight of stairs with his cane.


“You don’t think we know where to go because we’re new?” inquired freshman Rep. Michael McMahon (D-NY) as he entered with fellow frosh Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA). “We’ve taken tours to figure out where to go!”


Since its inception, the $620 million CVC has scored reams of bad press. The center opened last December years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. And some Democrats were mindful that reporters might again reap scorn on the project.


“Let me guess. FOX will report that this whole building was built just for Obama,” joked Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL).


The CVC wasn’t built for President. But the White House certainly took it over Monday night.


The Obama Administration made sure the President’s arrival was staged for television. Kind of. Four American flags festooned the entranceway that President Obama would stride through alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and her Democratic leadership team. Someone even sheathed a women’s restroom sign next to the door in brown cloth so it wouldn’t distract from the symbolic image of the President strolling side-by-side into the auditorium with Pelosi and the others.


The initial plan was for the television pool camera and still photographers to shoot directly across the foyer and down hallway where the President would walk with the Democratic leaders. But for reasons still unclear, the White House ignited a firestorm among a prickly press corps by deciding the walk shot of Mr. Obama coming down the hall and through the flag-decorated door would be “too long.” So the White House insisted that all cameras be shifted to the side, eliminating a head-on shot of President Obama entering the foyer and making a right-hand turn into grotto leading to auditorium.


Reporters and camera operators argued for a half-hour for the head-on shot, but to no avail. They would only be able to capture a profile of Mr. Obama as he glided past.


In the end, the passageway proved to be to wide for the President, the Speaker, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-CT) to walk through in tandem. Realizing this, President Obama stutter-stepped, permitting Pelosi and Hoyer to walk briefly ahead of him, with Clyburn and Larson trailing.


A coterie of more than 50 aides, military attaches and security personnel then streamed in behind Mr. Obama.


“The White House will outnumber the House Democrats in there,” remarked one photographer.


Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY) was tardy for the session. But two U.S. Capitol Police officers delayed the Congressman further, apparently not recognizing him. The officers required Higgins show his Congressional voting card before being allowed downstairs to the auditorium. As Higgins struggled to fish the card out of his wallet, Reps. Vic Snyder (D-AR) and Jay Inslee (D-WA) strolled by unchallenged.


“They always think I’m a staffer,” said Higgins.


Presidential visits to the Capitol are rare and usually send electricity buzzing throughout the campus. But Mr. Obama just paid a similar call on Senate Democrats last week. He met behind closed doors with House Republicans in January. And he delivered a speech to a Joint Session of Congress last month.


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) gleamed when she addressed the press after the meeting, calling it a “special day.”


But not everyone was impressed with the President as the Speaker.


Rep. David Wu (D-OR) brought along his son 11-year-old son Matthew and nine-year-old daughter Sarah for the caucus.


“Did you come to see the President?” I asked Matthew.


But Matthew seemed rather nonplussed by the whole affair. He quickly shot a look at his father.


“He MADE us come,” Matthew replied.


– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.