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Put Up Your Duke

President Bush launched a good- natured barb at Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) when he addressed the House GOP Conference behind closed doors last Thursday about closing the deal on the $350 billion tax cut.

Against all odds, Cunningham tried a last-ditch lobbying effort to jack up the level of the president’s tax cuts. Insiders say he held up a sign for the president to see that declared, “$550 or Fight!”

Knowing that all hope was lost for a $550 billion tax cut, an amused Bush decided to suggest that the fighter pilot who flew so many combat missions in Vietnam was just jealous of the president’s recent exploits on the USS Abraham Lincoln.

“Ever since I landed on that carrier, I knew that drove Duke crazy!” Bush cracked, as the lawmakers gave him a standing ovation.

Perhaps it was payback for the fact that on the day Bush landed on the carrier, Cunningham appeared on MSNBC and cracked, “I can fly a plane better than any Air Force weenie.”

Slippery When Wet. Rep. Karen McCarthy (D-Mo.), who fell down an escalator while inebriated earlier this year, was sporting a crutch and a cane around the Capitol last week.

McCarthy’s chief of staff, Phil Scaglia, told HOH that his boss apparently “slipped” in the Longworth House Office Building last Monday night.

“My understanding is this was floor wax,” said Scaglia, who is based in Missouri. “That’s what I was told.”

After the fall earlier this year, McCarthy sought treatment for alcoholism. This time, however, the fall was said to have nothing to do with her battle with alcohol.

“That’s my understanding,” Scaglia said.

Out of Step. Freshman Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) made quite a scene on the House floor in the wee hours of Friday morning, just before the House voted on the tax cut.

Sanchez, who says that her heel got caught, startled colleagues when she fell down a set of stairs in one corner of the House chamber. A set of colleagues helped Sanchez into the Speaker’s Lobby and then onto a balcony to get some air, sparking a flurry of speculation on Friday about the incident.

After HOH placed several calls to Sanchez on Friday to find out what happened, spokeswoman Betsy Arnold offered a written statement at the end of the day.

“She was helped to her feet but felt dizzy and nauseated,” Arnold said, adding that the boss had a bruised backbone. “Although not feeling well, she insisted on staying to make the last vote on the tax bill. It’s a shame that people are so quick to cast aspersions when the Congresswoman unfortunately suffered from an accident.”

On the Lam. House Democrats were frustrated by the events that led up to another freshman, Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), voting for the tax cut.

During the 15-minute window leading up to the vote, Scott was nowhere to be found as Democratic leaders desperately searched for as many votes against the tax cut as possible.

Scott was finally tracked down in the men’s room. “He was hiding out,” a senior Democratic aide told HOH. “He didn’t want to look at” his colleagues to reveal his vote.

A Scott spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.

Gallery of Horrors. The word is that Gloria Halcomb, a Senate Radio-TV Gallery employee who has a lawsuit pending against the chamber, was abruptly fired on Thursday.

Halcomb was shown the door by the gallery’s superintendent, Larry Janezich, who has long sparred with the employee.

Everyone is tight-lipped about it. “She’s no longer on the Senate payroll,” said a spokeswoman for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms.

Sign of the Times. Already reeling from the Jayson Blair scandal, The New York Times took it on the chin on Capitol Hill last week.

On Wednesday, Times correspondent David E. Rosenbaum received a tongue-lashing from Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) in front of a boatload of reporters from other organizations.

And then on Thursday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) savaged a Times reporter, Eric Lichtblau, at a committee markup. In an effort to knock down a damaging story by Lichtblau, Hatch noted that the reporter “shared bylines with the infamous Mr. Blair.”

The Thomas spat came in the middle of the high-stakes negotiations over the $350 billion tax cut. On Wednesday morning, the Times reported that Thomas had capitulated to the Senate on key elements of the bill. The front page of The Washington Post accurately reported just the opposite: Senate negotiators had caved to Thomas.

Rosenbaum, one of the authors of the Times account, asked Thomas a question at a press conference later in the day. The line of inquiry got under the skin of Thomas.

“Who do you write for?” demanded Thomas, who undoubtedly knew the answer.

“The New York Times,” said Rosenbaum.

“Ohhh, The New … York … Times,” said Thomas, who then paused for effect.

The chairman then chuckled and said, “I saw where THEY were on what was going to occur” on the tax negotiations.

The following day, Hatch was livid about a Lichtblau story reporting on a whistle-blower case that was allegedly mishandled by Justice Department official Michael Chertoff. The story happened to run on the day that Hatch’s panel was voting on Chertoff’s nomination to a federal appeals court.

At the markup, Hatch called it “disgraceful” for the Times to “impugn anybody” on the eve of the vote. He then proceeded to impugn Lichtblau.

That sparked fury from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The panel’s ranking member promptly dropped the term “McCarthyism,” suggesting that Hatch was hanging Lichtblau based on an apparently incidental connection to Blair.

Six Democrats voted present on Chertoff’s nomination, which nonetheless got out of committee. HOH can hardly wait for the fight on the Senate floor.

Something Like That. Did Bush call a small tax cut “itty bitty” or “little bitty”?

That was the question vexing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Jim Mills, a producer at Fox News Channel, during the leader’s press briefing on Thursday.

Pelosi, who has had some testy exchanges with representatives of Fox at her regular dugouts, listened as Mills posed a question premised on the idea that Bush had called a small tax plan a “little bitty” one.

“No, ‘itty bitty’ he called it,” Pelosi responded.

“That is fine,” said Mills.

“Did he call it ‘little bitty’? Well, who knows what he called it,” said Pelosi, adding, “What do you think he called it?”

“I am on the record,” said Mills. “I think it was ‘little bitty.’”

“The expression traditionally is ‘itty bitty,’ but he probably said ‘little bitty,’” she said. “So let’s not have a debate about it because you know what? It doesn’t matter.”

It turns out that Bush used both phrases, so everyone was right.

Give Him a Hand. A whimsical HOH item about a photo that shows Sens. Conrad Burns (R) and Max Baucus (D) holding hands on a Web site to promote this week’s Montana Economic Development Summit has landed a House staffer in hot water.

Brad Keena, spokesman for Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), decided to send a copy of last Wednesday’s item to some Montana media folks. He thought the photo might provide a funny twist on the summit since it seemed to symbolize the fact that Baucus and Burns, who are not exactly the best of friends, are coming together on a bipartisan basis to deal with the economy.

The Billings Gazette followed up with a story on Friday suggesting that the rest of the delegation was bent out of shape about publicity over the photo. The story somehow put Keena in the position of having to deny that any jokes about the photo had “homophobic overtones.”

“It’s not about homophobia, it’s about a funny picture,” Keena told the newspaper. Rehberg said he “chastised” his spokesman for joking about it at all.

An angry Burns, who himself had originally given HOH a joking comment about the photo, refused to talk to the Billings Gazette. His chief of staff cryptically told the paper that he would be “making some phone calls” about the Keena matter.

And this apparently put a chill on the delegation’s Thursday breakfast. When the paper asked Baucus about the atmosphere at the meal, he said, “I don’t want to comment on that.”

Apparently the delegation is collectively searching for a sense of humor.

Memorial Day Politics. Two of D.C.’s top political shows will be focusing on the aftermath of the war in Iraq on their Monday programs.

On Fox News Channel, Brit Hume will be debriefing four of the network’s journalists who were embedded with the U.S. military during the conflict.

The guests sharing their experiences on “Special Report with Brit Hume” will include correspondents Greg Kelly and Rick Leventhal, as well as D.C.-based producers Jamie Nelson and Maya Zumwalt, who went out in the field for some reporting during the war.

The reflections of Zumwalt may be particularly interesting because of her family history. Her grandfather, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., ordered the spraying of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Her father, Elmo Zumwalt III, also a military veteran, tragically died from cancer allegedly brought on by exposure to Agent Orange.

They dealt with the terrible irony in the 1986 book “My Father, My Son,” which was later made into a TV movie.

Over on CNN’s “Judy Woodruff’s Inside Politics,” meanwhile, the host will be interviewing actor Robert Duvall, who has an interesting take on the anti-war comments of some of his colleagues in Hollywood.

“I can name two actors, Gene Hackman and Michael Caine in England [who] went to Korea and fought, and they seem to have a respect for the military,” said Duvall, adding that they stand in sharp contrast to anti-war actors who “love to put on the uniform and play soldier in movies.”

When Woodruff urges him to name names, Duvall cracks, “I can name names of people who did better acting jobs to gain 4f status to get out of the draft rather than going in and serving. But I won’t name names. Their acting was better at that than I’ve ever seen onscreen.”

Duvall declined to elaborate on his own feelings about the war but notes, “The men and women who fought in Iraq did it well. They were wonderful.” 

John Bresnahan, Erin P. Billings and Suzanne Nelson contributed to this report.

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