Undeterred by President Bush’s 48-hour ultimatum issued to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein the night before, more than 160 House Republicans gathered with lobbyists and donors from around the country for their annual fundraising gala Tuesday night.
As Members arrived at the Washington Hilton for the event, which netted more than $5 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee, many noted the solemn mood but conveyed the feeling that life and its activities, including overtly political ones, must go on even when the country stands on the brink of war.
“I really can’t think of a reason we should cancel the evening,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), before heading inside the red, white and blue ballroom with his wife.
Tancredo said he was surprised by the absence of protesters outside the venue. “If they don’t care, why should we?”
Despite describing the mood as somber, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said he was glad to be at the event because it would raise money for Republican candidates who support the war on terrorism and other issues he cares deeply about. He indicated that things would have been different had military action already commenced.
“If the war had started we would not be here tonight,” Sessions said.
Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) agreed that “if guns were firing,” the event likely would not have gone on. Like other Members, he noted that the dinner had been planned long before the talk of war escalated and that a great deal of hard work would have been wasted had it not taken place.
“The polite thing to do is show up,” said Linder, who arrived at the dinner with home-state colleague Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.).
Some attendees, such as Caron West, who came from San Antonio, with her husband and two daughters, said the event was a way of showing support for the president and the war.
Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who is challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in a primary next year, added that the fundraiser “doesn’t diminish in any way the support of what we’re doing.”
Other Members went to great lengths to downplay the festivities and were less apt to discuss their appearance at the event.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) said he’d only be at the fundraiser for a “short period of time.”
“I think everyone recognizes the somber mood that we’re in,” Hoekstra said. “I don’t think it’s a party.”
When asked his thoughts about attending the dinner on the eve of war, freshman Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.) offered no comment before being whisked away by an aide, who said the Congressman would be available for an interview if a call was placed to his office the next morning.
While House Republicans appear to have gotten the event off just days before bombing is expected to begin, timing will likely be more problematic for their counterparts in the Senate as well as House Democrats, both of whom have fundraising events scheduled next week.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s annual spring fundraiser is Tuesday, the same night that the National Republican Senatorial Committee has planned a fundraising dinner saluting Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Frist and Vice President Cheney are the invited keynote speakers.
Kingston noted that Tuesday’s NRCC dinner wasn’t exactly going off as planned since the scheduled speaker, top White House political adviser Karl Rove, had cancelled his appearance.
Instead, the packed crowd of approximately 1,500 heard from Commerce Secretary Don Evans and dined on an antipasto appetizer, beef and sea bass entrée, and white chocolate macadamia cheesecake dessert.
All of the House Republican leaders were in attendance, including Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.), Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.).
The dinner, chaired by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), raised $5.1 million and was deemed a huge success for the NRCC’s first major test of new campaign finance regulations. Last year the dinner raised $9 million, but that was before a ban on so-called “soft money” took effect in November.
As security was heightened at the Capitol and around Washington Tuesday, there was no visible increased police presence for the fundraiser.
At the Hilton’s lower-level entrance, one white Capitol Police cruiser stood out among the black SUVs and sedans that lined the hotel drive and T Street Northwest.
Upstairs in the lobby, guests arrived as a pianist played “Ain’t Misbehavin” and other selections in the hotel bar. Some stopped at the lectern marked “security checkpoint” to flash their IDs, but most guests were waved through and directed to the event downstairs.
Nevada Rep. Jim Gibbons (R) did not attend Tuesday’s dinner because he had just returned from a trip to Chile, but he said this week that he will suspend political activity once the expected war begins.
Gibbons, who is considering a challenge to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) next year, said he will immediately put a hold on all fundraising activities, including three upcoming events that were expected to raise a total of $100,000.
A Gibbons spokeswoman said the hold on campaign activity was not indefinite and that the Congressman will resume fundraising “when the country is in a more stable position,” not necessarily when the war ends.
The uncertainty of when military action will begin and end was mentioned Tuesday night by several Members, who argued that the threat of war should not disrupt domestic activities.
“Life goes on,” said GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio). “We don’t know when war is coming, do we?”