White Smoke

The Speaker’s Lobby: White Smoke

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

29 October 2009 

A plume of white smoke is sure to emanate from Capitol Hill this morning.

For House Democrats are unveiling their final health care reform bill during a grand ceremony on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol.

For months, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) regaled the Congressional press corps with platitudes and trifle that the health care legislation was “on schedule” or “on track.” She frequently seasoned this rhetoric with exclamations that the work was “exciting” and “historic.”

And on the day before Pelosi and the Democratic brain trust prepared to roll out the much-anticipated health care package, the speaker never spoke.

In fact, few Democrats said much of anything. And the big rollout was never even made official until the leadership blasted out an announcement via email at 7:36 pm Wednesday night.

Reporters got a hint that something was afoot when an email from Pelosi advisor Reva Price started filtering its way through the Capitol midday Wednesday.

“You are cordially invited to join Speaker Pelosi, Leadership and Members of the House Democratic Caucus for an event tomorrow on health insurance reform,” the message read. It went on to indicate the event was scheduled for 10 am on the West Front of the Capitol.

Congressional reporters immediately started pinging sources about this event. What exactly was the event? Was Pelosi introducing the bill? Did they get a cost-analysis from the Congressional Budget Office? Was the announcement even true?

Information was scarce. Several House leadership aides initially feigned ignorance about any event until reporters confronted them with evidence of the email invitation. But everyone remained mum. And chatter started among the press corps that maybe Pelosi didn’t have the votes. Or perhaps there was a problem with the bill and the speaker was trying to walk back plans for a West Front blowout.

The House Democratic brass was scheduled to caucus in Pelosi’s office around 2:45 pm. So reporters buttonholed every one of the speaker’s lieutenants as they arrived for the meeting.

“Are they bringing out the bill tomorrow?” I asked House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) as he strolled across Statuary Hall to the Speaker’s Office.

“We’ll see. I’m not sure a decision has been made,” Waxman responded.

I put the same question to House Education Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) when he arrived.

“I don’t know. I just got here,” answered Miller, one of the architects of the health care legislation.

And finally a moment of clarity from Pelosi’s special assistant, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) when I made the same inquiry a third time.

“That is the current hope,” Van Hollen said of a Thursday introduction. “That was the plan.”


Flash! Van Hollen advanced the story!

The minutes ticked away as the Democratic leadership team huddled in Pelosi’s office. More reporters trickled in to wait for more info in hallway in front of the speaker’s office suite, steps off the Capitol Rotunda.

Reporters jumped nearly every lawmaker who walked by.

Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) emerged first.

“I wasn’t in the leadership meeting,” Crowley said as a scrum of reporters chased him down the hall. “I was in the whip meeting.”

“Then tell us how the whip count is going?” asked one enterprising reporter.

The reporters retreated to the corridor. Then a throng of them jumped into action and accosted an older gentlemen as he walked toward the House chamber.

“Who is that?” asked a reporter.

It turns out it wasn’t anybody in on the health care meetings. But former Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-MD). A scribe asked Sarbanes what he was working on.

“Nothing in particular,” Sarbanes quipped.

The reporters returned to their posts.

House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) was the next target. As head of the Rules panel, all legislation must pass through Slaughter’s committee as a gateway to the House floor.

“I don’t have anything to say,” Slaughter said as reporters tracked her through Statuary Hall. “I’ve got to go to the Rules Committee right this minute.”

Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) materialized a bit later. Andrews chairs a key health subcommittee and is a go-to figure for reporters in the health care debate. But not today.

“I do have news,” Roberts proclaimed.

The reporters clustered around the New Jersey Democrat.

“The Phillies are going to defeat the Yankees in the World Series,” Andrews said.

The journalists sighed.

Andrews exited Pelosi’s sanctum after only a short visit.

“Phillies in six,” Andrews said.

The scribes peppered the Congressman about Thursday.

“There is no event scheduled yet,” he said.

The reporters pressed him further.

“It’s not my announcement to make,” Andrews replied. “We have something that’s imminent.”

The reporters continued.

Finally, a query Andrews was willing to field.

“How will Brad Lidge do?” I asked Andrews, referring to the Phillies closer.

“He’ll be scoreless in the World Series,” Andrews answered.

The press corps lingered. And it’s ranks swelled to more than 30. Some leaned against the wall. Others found a makeshift seat in an alcove cut out of the wall. A few ambled aimlessly through the Rotunda.

Meantime, scores of tourists filed past Pelosi’s office. Each wedge of people led by a “Red Coat,” Congressional tour guides identifiable by the red blazers they wear.

I stopped one guide and told her group the nation’s leaders were finalizing health care reform just behind the wall.

“That’s great!” piped up one enthusiastic man.

The Red Coat noted that a number of Europeans were in this particular tour group.

Someone muttered something about “socialized medicine.”

The reporters next quarry was an unsuspecting Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO). The Colorado Democrat arrived with a few constituents and aides in tow. Perlmutter addressed his constituents just before the reporters swarmed him.

“The journalists are obviously onto something the Members (of Congress) must not know about yet,” Perlmutter said.

The minutes ticked into hours. And the afternoon waned.

Reporters rubbered close to the edge of Pelosi’s hallway when Henry Waxman appeared.

Turns out he was just using the restroom.

A few journalists groused about their cell phone and BlackBerry service seemed faulty in the hallway. Someone joked that the Democratic leadership must be “jamming” the signals, much like Cuba interferes with Radio Marti broadcasts from the United States.

More Democrats arrived. Reps. Phil Hare (D-IL), Joe Courtney (D-CT) and Tim Walz (D-MN). Turns out there was a confab of the House Democrats’ sophomore class in Pelosi’s office. Elected in 2006, Pelosi dubbed this group of second-term lawmakers the “majority makers” since they’re the ones that helped Democrats wrest control of the House away from the GOP.

“Republicans hope if they vote for this health care bill they’ll call them the ‘Minority Makers,” said one scribe.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) is one of the most-prominent members of the sophomore class. Like bumper cars, reporters crashed into one another as they sought out the Vermont lawmaker.

“Single-payer!” exclaimed Welch, invoking the health care slang for a program where the government pays for all health services. “It’s a groundswell for single payer!”

Of course, Democrats stripped that health care option from consideration long ago.

Louise Slaughter arrived on the scene a third time. And again, the journalism throng swarmed her.

“The best people are coming behind me,” Slaughter insisted.

The journalists retreated. But just in time to descend on an exiting Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).

DeLauro was reticent.

“Look guys, you can follow me from here to Timbuktu,” DeLauro said. “But I don’t have anything to say.”

Someone joked if they have “negotiated rates” in Timbuktu. That’s another health care term which describes how costs could be set under the Democrats’ legislative proposal.

Finally, the reporters got what they wanted: definitive information on what was going down Thursday.

The word came not from Pelosi. Not from a Pelosi spokesperson. Not from Chris Van Hollen. Not from Henry Waxman or anyone else privy to the conclave.

The news came from an unlikely source in the form of Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN). Whose  tenuous link to health care reform stems from the fact that he represents the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.

Walz fed the information-starved correspondents with news manna cultivated from inside the meeting.

Walz said it appeared that “negotiated rates” would be the system to set prices for those who purchase coverage from the federal government. The bill’s price tag was scored at less than $900 billion. And yes, the leadership has requested that rank-and-file Democrats attend a big event on the West Front Thursday morning.

Shortly after Walz departed, reporters focused on Rep. Marion Berry (D-AR) and wedged him into a door jamb. Berry signaled he had some lingering questions about the bill. And he hadn’t yet made up his mind about how he’d vote on it. But Berry said he would be present on the West Front Thursday morning.

A reporter asked Berry if it was disingenuous for the leadership to request House Democrats to attend a pep rally for a piece of legislation that many hadn’t yet read or weren’t certain they could support.  

“I think that’s standard operating procedure,” Berry      quipped of the Democratic leadership’s maneuver.

Pelosi exited the building with little fanfare while reporters took their turns chatting up Berry. Finally the Speaker’s Office was empty. And after nearly four hours in the hall, the reporting throng finally dispersed. As the reporters walked away, a few spoke about the “72-hour” agreement to post the bill online before it could be debated. Someone wondered if that could balloon to “73-hours” if it included the extra hour this weekend, courtesy of the return to Standard Time.

At 7:36 pm, the Speaker’s Office finally announced that there would be a big health care reform event Thursday morning on the West Front of the Capitol. It would start at 10:30 am, not 10 am. The 10 am timeframe mentioned in the cryptic email earlier was the time the “extras” were asked to report to the set. And the press release noted that they’d hold the rollout in the Cannon Caucus Room if it rained.

Even though the U.S. doesn’t have nationalized health care yet, it does have nationalized weather forecasting. The National Weather Service predicts drizzle in downtown Washington, DC today with a high of 62.

And thus the biggest announcement of the year’s health care reform debate came and went Wednesday without anyone in the Congressional leadership formally uttering a word.

-         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.

-         The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.