The Speaker's Lobby: Race to Witch Mountain
By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
03 April 2009
Perhaps it was the fact that April Fool's Day fell in the middle of the week. Maybe it had to do with the staggering size of the $3.6 trillion budget Congress approved Friday. Or perhaps it was because everyone on Capitol Hill was punchy and excited to abandon Washington for two weeks after a near-unbearable legislative sprint since the start of the year.
Those would be logical explanations.
But the week on Capitol Hill was beyond bizarre."It's like aliens invaded this place. It's like Race to Witch Mountain around here," said a befuddled Senate aide, referencing the Disney movie about telepathic children staving off an extra-terrestrial incursion at Witch Mountain, NV.
It certainly seemed as though there was paranormal presence surrounding the Capitol this week. And I'm not even referring to the visit filmmaker Michael Moore paid Wednesday to Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH).
"Happy April Fool's Day," a reporter said to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) as he entered the House Radio-TV Gallery for a press briefing Wednesday.
"The same to you," Hoyer responded. "But keep in mind your story will probably run tomorrow."
Of course, April Fool's Day was also the day House Republicans introduced their version of a budget, which at least one journalist likened to defunct American Motors Corporation rolling out the Gremlin on April 1, 1970.
The Republican timing wasn't lost on Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) who scored with this telegraphed but effective jab.
"I think it's ironic that the Republicans offered their budget on April first. I could make a joke about that that. But it would probably find it's way onto national television," said Crowley.
Last week, reporters gathered for a Republican news conference to hear about GOP budget priorities. Reporters were shocked to only receive a glossy outline. When pressed at the time, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) declared that a budget is really "just a bunch of numbers."
So on April Fool's Day, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI ), the top Republican on the Budget Committee, laid out his "bunch of numbers" to the press corps. Ryan's measure called for a major overhaul of the tax code and for a means test for seniors to receive the Medicare Part D benefit.
It was sure April Fool's Day. But Ryan wasn't joking when he responded to a reporter's question about the Democrats' budget.
"This may sound kind of weird, but I've been reading federal budgets since I was 22-years-old. I know this is kind of sick. I've never seen anything like this," Ryan said of the Democratic proposal.
At the end of the press conference, Ryan's communications director Angela Kuck returned to the Congressman a cup of Starbucks coffee she held while he spoke.
"I'm sorry sir. But I accidentally drank out of it," she told him.
Weird. Or sick. But Kuck's mea "cup-a" aligned perfectly with the zaniness that soaked
Capitol Hill this week.
It was weird to hear National Public Radio report on April Fool's morning that the Justice Department vacated the conviction of former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK).
I checked the calendar. And having worked at NPR, I presumed it was one of NPR's legendary April Fool's Day story hoaxes.
Over the years, NPR has duped millions of listeners with mock stories on April Fool's Day. Everything from the Postal Service introducing portable zip codes to an orchestra steroid scandal ("Musicians are playing faster, louder and stronger than they ever have before.").
But it the Ted Stevens story was true.
Within 24 hours, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (R) and state GOP party chairman Randy Ruedrich called on the man who defeated Stevens, Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) to resign.
"Many voters did not choose Stevens because they were told he was guilty, " Palin said in a statement. "How fair an election was that?"
Palin went on to say that Alaskans "would like to see an election that's free from improper influence, and I can't imagine how Mark Begich could argue that."
Well, Begich did argue it.
"I got into the Senate race long before Senator Stevens' legal troubles began," Begich said in a news release. "I'm honored to serve Alaskans for the next six years."
What's interesting is that earlier in the week, House and Senate Republican fundraising committees unceremoniously dumped Palin as the keynote speaker at a crucial dinner to help fill the coffers of Congressional candidates.
Just weeks ago, the House and Senate Republican campaign panels breathlessly announced they secured the telegenic Palin for the dinner. But then the Alaska governor's office said they were still reviewing the decision. Meantime, the committees insisted that Palin was booked. Finally, without even formally notifying Palin, the committees iced the hockey mom in favor of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA).
"She was a disaster," a Republican source familiar with the invitation told me. "We had confirmation."
It was ironic to find Palin arguing for extraordinary measures to undo the result of the Begich-Stevens election even while she vacillated about helping other GOP House and Senate candidates win seats the old-fashioned way.
The Senate Thursday plowed through a laborious, annual exercise on the budget called "Vote-a-Rama." That's where the Senate sets aside the entire day and takes roll call vote after roll call vote. It's a painful exercise, listening to the sonorous sound of the clerk's voice read through the list of the senator's names over and over. "Mr. Akaka. Mr. Alexander. Mr. Barrasso..."
In the end, the Senate took 55 votes Thursday before approving the budget just before midnight.
While tedium set in on the Senate chamber Thursday night, fireworks exploded on the House floor.
Most members had packed up and caught planes out of Reagan National Airport by the time House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-MA) took the floor just before 9 pm for what's called a Special Order. Because the House is so large, it allows lawmakers to speak at the end of the day for up to an hour on any topic. Frank rarely takes a Special Order. But a cadre of House Republicans deliberately lay in wait in the House chamber in an effort to get under Frank's skin.
As Frank spoke about problems in the banking sector and the country's financial crisis, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) tried to interrupt.
"Will the gentleman yield," King repeatedly asked of Frank.
"No," thundered Frank. "I will instruct the gentleman that the rules of the House do not allow him to interrupt without permission. I do not interrupt people without permission. And neither may he."
Frank finally exploded at King's hectoring.
"Mr. Speaker, may you please instruct the gentlemen the rules of the House?" he barked at freshman Rep. Glenn Nye (D-VA), presiding over the chamber only because of the lateness of the hour.
Frank, who brought to the floor an array of charts and posters for his presentation, finally yielded to King about 30 minutes later.
King's first item of business for Frank?
"Just a minor correction on one of the posters, that references Mr. Paulson as Frank Paulson rather than Henry Paulson," King said to Frank, referring to former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.
Chagrined, Frank seemed amused that King waited a half-hour just to point out a typo on one of his posters.
"It should have said Hank Paulson," Frank conceded. "I thank the gentleman for his profound correction and I will see to it that the typist is severely chastised."
But perhaps the most peculiar episode involving Capitol Hill this week didn't even happen on Capitol Hill.
On Tuesday, Republican Jim Tedisco and Democrat Scott Murphy squared off in a special election in upstate New York to succeed Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). Gillibrand resigned from the House in January after New York Governor David Paterson (D) appointed her to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Senate.
Journalists and political operatives focused on the Tedisco-Murphy contest as the first metric to measure the presidency of Barack Obama. Gillibrand's old district had historically been Republican turf. But after Gillibrand wrestled it from the GOP in 2006, voters re-elected her handily last fall.
A Murphy victory could show continued Democratic momentum in a swing district. But a Republican win would be interrupted as a referendum on the Democrats' mammoth budget and President Obama.
But alas, no barometer emerged Tuesday night. The race remained too close to call.
And Friday afternoon, the New York Board of Elections declared that Tedisco and Murphy are tied. Tied, mind you. With both candidates collecting precisely 77,225 votes apiece.
- 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.