The Speaker’s Lobby: The Only Game in Town

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

25 February 2010

There was a summit? On health care reform?

To the untrained eye, the health care reform confab between President Obama and Congressional leaders was the marquee event in Washington Thursday. Cable TV networks dedicated swaths of their programming to air the conclave live (although MSNBC opted to telecast Finland versus Sweden in the women’s hockey bronze medal match at the Olympics). Networks poured enormous resources into setting up the right camera angles and booking analysts to debate who won and who lost at the unique bargaining session.

You would think the health care summit was the only game in town.

But it was business as usual on Capitol Hill. And most lawmakers caught no more than a few fleeting moments of the health care huddle as they zipped by TV screens.

“I’ve been piecemealing it,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY). He missed most of the morning session because of a House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “I wouldn’t have wanted to stop my whole day.

Meeks said he viewed a bit of the meeting as he went in and out of the hearing room and then hustled to his office to meet with constituents.

“I don’t want to blow them off,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll be glued to some of the rebroadcasts tonight on C-SPAN.”

Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) faced the same dilemma as Meeks. He was stuck most of the morning in a House Budget Committee Hearing with Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“We did what we’re supposed to be doing,” said Etheridge. “Just because I’m not watching doesn’t mean we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do.”

Etheridge served as North Carolina’s school superintendent before coming to Washington in 1997. He wanted to hear Duncan discuss his policy priorities for the year. But Etheridge says even though Congressional leaders are focused on health care, Congress bustles with its daily work.

“The machinery still goes,” Etheridge said.

And the machinery went.

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) says he barely saw any of the televised forum.

“I was in a hearing. I had to conduct a job interview. And now I’ve got to go to the floor to talk about the intelligence bill,” Thompson said as he rushed into the men’s room near the House chamber. “It’s non-stop here. We have a saying that you leave one meeting 15 minutes early to get to the next meeting 15 minutes late.”

And the day churned with signature Congressional velocity.

The House Rules Committee met to consider “the Senate amendments to the bill (H.R. 3961) to amend title XVIII of the Social Security Act to reform the Medicare SGR payment system for physicians and to reinstitute and update the Pay-As-You-Go requirement of budget neutrality on new tax and mandatory spending legislation, enforced by the threat of annual, automatic sequestration.”

Which, if you don’t speak Congress, means the House was about to reauthorize the Patriot Act.

Meantime, the Senate drilled through “the motion to concur  in the House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to HR 1299, the U.S. Capitol Police Administrative Act with a Reid Amendment.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) spoke on the Senate floor about spending $12 million to install electronic detectors in cars to prevent drunk driving.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) appeared in the Rayburn Room near the House chamber as a group applauded her for working on women’s issues when she served on the New York City Council.

Across the street from the Capitol in the Longworth House Office Building, the Subcommittee on National Parks heard testimony on five bills. A measure backed by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) would allow public land in Mohave County, AZ to be used as a shooting range.

Meantime, Kevin Craig Sr. and his eight-year-old son Kevin Jr., trekked from California to Capitol Hill to make the case that Congress should recognize the Buffalo Soldiers, who protected the national parks at their inception. To plead their case, the Craigs even donned the period uniforms of the 9th and 10th Cavalry, complete with bandannas.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) heads the parks panel. But he’s been a key player in the health care debate, pushing leadership to consider the “public option.” That’s a form of government-backed health care supported by the most-liberal blocs of lawmakers in the House.

“I would prefer to be sitting down watching the meeting,” Grijalva said. “But I’m the chair of that subcommittee. So it’s hard to bow out.”

Grijalva groused about which lawmakers were selected to attend the summit. He noted that minorities were under-represented, with the exception being Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), who’s the House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman.

“The public option is not on the table in this discussion because there’s nobody there to bring it up,” Grijalva huffed.

But even though many lawmakers exhibited some curiosity about the health meeting, a few were more than happy to go about their daily routine.

“Hell no,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) when asked if he wished he had a seat at Blair House. “I’ve been working.”

Kingston then whipped out his BlackBerry to show a full calendar of events, ranging from a hearing on Fort Hood to a meeting with the head of the Carpet and Rug Institute.

Also making the rounds around the Capitol was Paul Rusesabagina, of “Hotel Rwanda” fame. Don Cheadle portrayed Rusesabagina in the 2004 film that depicted how he saved more than 1,200 Tutsis and Hutus during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Even though health care reform was front and center, Rusesabagina said he “didn’t want to miss a chance” to meet with lawmakers about human rights and blood diamonds. Rusesabagina made it to sessions with Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), Chris Smith (R-NJ) Sen. Roland Burris (D-IL) and even Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), who participated in the Blair House session.

But Rusesabagina said he knew human rights wouldn’t command top billing.

“We understand,” Rusesabagina said of the summit. “Health care is a little more important today.”

But the health care jawboning didn’t stop the National Potato Council. Nearly 100 of its members from Maine and Idaho descended on the House Agriculture Committee hearing room for lunch. And to ask Congress for a $2.8 million “potato breeding research program.”

And you thought that health care reform was the only hot potato in town….

–          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 confer there during votes.