The Speaker's Lobby: 25 Seconds
By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
18 November 2009
The afternoon grew late on November 5th when House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) finally emerged from the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Hoyer surfaced for air after a grueling, three-hour long cloister on health care. The House Democratic leadership was barreling toward an historic, weekend vote on their marquee agenda item. But they didn't yet have the votes to pass the bill. Hoyer's steps were brisk as he glided out of Pelosi's second-floor suite and down a spiral staircase to his office on the first floor.
An assemblage of reporters followed the leader and fired questions at the Maryland Democrat as he strode toward his office. What were they going to do about abortion? Did they have the votes? Would they wait to vote next week?
Hoyer didn't have the answers to most of those questions. And when he reached the staircase landing, I asked him something he didn't have an immediate answer to either.
"Mr. Leader," I began, "Will the House hold a moment of silence to honor those killed today at Fort Hood?"
I figured Hoyer was the appropriate person to ask about this. After all, the Majority Leader controls the House floor schedule.
A quizzical look consumed Hoyer's face. He stopped in his tracks and put his palm on my shoulder.
"The what?" he asked, nearly squinting at me.
"The shooting at Fort Hood," I repeated.
Then his longtime aide Stacey Farnen Bernards jumped in.
"You haven't been briefed, sir. It happened during the meeting," Bernards said.
Hoyer and the other leaders were burrowed so deeply in their health care strategy session inside Pelosi's alcove that they hadn't seen the news in hours.
I told Hoyer that about a dozen people had been killed. Apparently by someone in the service. The Majority Leader's head tilted to the side as though trying to grasp what I was telling him.
"That's terrible," Hoyer said. "By someone on the base?"
"Will you have a moment of silence?" I asked again.
"I would imagine we would," Hoyer replied, still digesting what I told him. The leader then turned and walked down the hall. Hoyer's gait was markedly slower than when he charged out of Pelosi's office a few moments earlier.
And sure enough, about an hour later, Pelosi interrupted a series of votes to note the tragedy on the House floor.
"Members and those in the gallery will please rise and observe a moment of silence in memory of the victims of violence at Fort Hood," the Speaker commanded, presiding over the House chamber from the rostrum.
Democrats and Republicans alike then stood to bow their heads in prayer and meditation.
The usually-rambunctious chamber fell quiet. And 25 seconds later, Pelosi gently tapped the gavel, marking the end of the tribute.
Those 25 seconds of silence could mark the last time Congressional Democrats and Republicans agree on anything about Fort Hood.
While Congress was out of session last week, Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-CT) scheduled a hearing for this Thursday. Lieberman's accused the alleged perpetrator Nidal Malik Hasan of home-grown terrorism.
Meantime, some Republicans were quick to call for a Congressional inquiry. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, declared that the Obama Administration did not cough up information about Hasan and his possible links to terrorism.
"The horrific shootings at Fort Hood are a tragic reminder of the potential deadly consequences of the threat posed by homegrown jihadism," Hoekstra said in a statement. "Congress has an obligation to review how federal agencies are handling and disseminating information related to the threat."
But Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) pushed for a more deliberate approach on Fort Hood.
"It would be inappropriate and premature to jump to conclusions on this matter," Reyes said.
And then Reyes took a not-so-veiled swipe at Hoekstra.
"I am disappointed that some have rushed to the news media with unfounded information in order to gain headlines," Reyes said. "I hope that my colleagues will refrain from speculation, pray for those who were affected by this tragic incident, and let investigators do their work."
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) also cautioned against haste in his news release.
"Right now, we need to avoid jumping to any conclusions and give the Army and the FBI a chance to do their jobs," Skelton said, citing his experience as a local prosecutor.
But the time for press releases was over when Congress reconvened this week.
First, the Senate Armed Services Committee promptly postponed a meeting on Fort Hood because leading officials from the Army weren't available. Then came a closed door briefing for lawmakers Tuesday given by Defense and Justice Department officials. And then the White House requested a slow-down from Congressional inquiries into the shootings.
"I don't see any partisan flavor to this other than if somebody tries to make it a partisan flavor," Steny Hoyer told reporters late Tuesday morning.
But some lawmakers were already drizzling partisan flavor all over any effort to find out the truth about Fort Hood.
"We've come to the conclusion that this represents a systemic breakdown," said Hoekstra Tuesday afternoon at a press conference packed with Republicans. "Congress needs to move forward to make sure we do our work to get to the right conclusions."
"First of all, we don't have all the facts," countered Reyes an hour later during a scrum with reporters in the Speaker's Lobby near the House floor.
"Tools and methods that have been used in previous months and years by the intelligence community are no longer at their disposal (to investigate Fort Hood)," said Intelligence Committee member Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI).
"I don't know of any tools that have been curtailed or limited," countered Reyes. "This may be just again a political smokescreen thrown out there."
"The families of the dead and the wounded deserve to know the truth. But all Americans deserve to know their government is taking the appropriate steps," said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX).
"What the Republicans are doing is irresponsible," said Reyes. "I don't think that talking about this case to the media is responsible. I think it is irresponsible to speculate."
So, no one really knows what happened at Fort Hood. There is wild conjecture about whether Hasan acted alone, had links to al-Qaida, is part of a broad, still-unfolding conspiracy or is just someone who finally snapped.
Meantime, the charges and countercharges between Democrats and Republicans are in full volley. The probe isn't even launched and it's already bleeding partisanship. And the GOP is quick to remind people that key aspects of the Patriot Act expire in six weeks.
Which could mean the only time Democrats and Republicans can agree on Fort Hood was for 25 seconds during a moment of silence on the House floor.
- 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.