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GOP Prepares ‘War War Room’

The House Republican Conference is in the final stages of establishing a “war war room” to provide a clearinghouse of information for lawmakers and ready comments for the media if hostilities begin in Iraq.

The operation is the brainchild of Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) and will involve the chairmen and top staff of four key House committees along with at least 10 other Republican lawmakers who are considered to have useful talents and expertise.

“We want to be able to put the most knowledgeable Members out there to help the world understand what’s going on,” said Pryce. “Iraq is clearly on the minds of every American.”

The four chairmen who will participate are Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), Select Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and Select Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (R-Fla.).

Ten other GOP lawmakers will be involved in the effort at its initial stages — Reps. Mike Pence (Ind.), Kay Granger (Texas), Heather Wilson (N.M.), Jennifer Dunn (Wash.), Curt Weldon (Pa.), Jo Ann Davis (Va.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Candice Miller (Mich.), Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.) and Mac Thornberry (Texas). Other Members could join the team if circumstances warrant.

The war room will perform two key functions. The first will be to gather information and intelligence from the Bush administration to distribute to Republican Members, who will presumably be pressed for updates by local media and by constituents at town hall meetings and other forums.

To that end, the four chairmen and their staffs will be expected to facilitate getting information out of the Bush administration. The Homeland Security panel will work with the Department of Homeland Security, for example, while Armed Services will keep in close touch with the Pentagon.

House leaders will receive daily briefings in the Speaker’s office from administration officials, who are also expected to provide periodic floor briefings for larger groups of lawmakers. Arrangements for those sessions are being coordinated by Chris Cox, an aide in the White House’s Congressional liaison office.

The second function of the war room will be to provide a central location for reporters seeking information or a quick interview. Many of the rank-and-file Members involved in the effort hold senior positions on relevant committees, are combat veterans or represent districts with large military presences.

The participating Members and their staffs are still learning exactly what their roles in the war room will be, but they seem to be eager to play a part.

“The Conference contacted us about this and we’re very happy to do it,” said an aide to Rep. Cox. “We wanted to be able to respond to the other Members as well as to the media quickly.”

War rooms are certainly nothing new on Capitol Hill. Both parties have used them in the past to promote efforts to block or pass specific legislation such as PNTR. Unlike in some cases, the war effort will not involve setting aside an actual room. Rather, it will be run out of the GOP Conference office under the guidance of Pryce and her staff.

The current group will hold its third and likely final meeting today to put the finishing touches on the plan. With the possibility looming that war could start next week, the Conference wants to be ready to go.

“This will be the end of the preparations,” said Conference spokesman Greg Crist. “Everything from now on will be on standby.”

The first meeting, which took place in late February, involved chiefs of staff and policy aides from the House leadership and the administration. The second meeting brought together committee and leadership press staffers to discuss communications strategy.

Meanwhile, House Democrats are working through their own Iraq message issues, as progressive Members are pushing their party to speak with one voice on the looming war. House Democrats have been deeply divided on the topic of Iraq, with top leaders split on whether war is an appropriate course.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said war is inappropriate until all diplomatic means of disarming Saddam Hussein have been exhausted. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), on the other hand, has supported the use of military force to oust Hussein.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) sent a memorandum to fellow lawmakers this week seeking unanimity among Caucus members on the issue. She suggested six proposals for consensus, none of which advocate war.

“It is my hope that we can have a vigorous discussion within the Caucus, then proceed to speak out as one with a voice of reason rather than simply with a voice of resolve,” she wrote.

But Lee’s proposal is unlikely to get traction in the Caucus, given a sizable chunk of Members support military action.

One Democratic Member said that given last year’s vote on the resolution, which split the Caucus, it would be tough to reach a unified position now.

“Speaking and talking about these issues is never a bad thing,” said the Member. “Trying to find middle ground is a worthy goal, but I don’t know if it’s achievable given the current time frame.”

Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.

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