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Speaker Urges GOP to Hit Airwaves Over WMDs

Reflecting frustration among Congressional Republicans with the media’s current focus on whether the Bush administration relied on faulty intelligence before going to war with Iraq, Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) implored his fellow House Republicans Wednesday to hit the airwaves to push back against criticism of the White House.

The Speaker delivered his message at the weekly House Republican Conference meeting, where he urged Members to go on TV to defend the administration and try to shift the focus to the broader war on terror.

“We need to get back to the big picture and make sure what happened on Sept. 11 never happens again,” Hastert told the Conference.

His plea comes as the press, particularly cable news networks, continues to hammer away at the question of how and why President Bush included a line in his State of the Union address about an Iraqi attempt to buy enriched uranium in Africa — despite doubts about the accuracy of that report.

House Republican leaders have criticized the media’s emphasis on the story.

“You can question whether foreign intelligence conclusions ought to go into presidential speeches, but I have got to tell you, I think this whole thing has been incredibly overblown,” Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) told reporters Tuesday. “We are spending an inordinate amount of time and resources talking about how the president got 16 words into a State of the Union speech, and not focusing on the war on terror.”

As they bemoan the media’s news judgment, GOP leaders want to see more lawmakers pushing back against Democratic criticism.

The Conference press operation, which serves as a clearinghouse for media booking, has already seen a spike in the number of House Republicans it has placed on the air.

Conference spokesman Greg Crist said that in a normal week the press shop is able to book 12 to 15 House Republicans on cable news shows. Two weeks ago, the Conference placed 18 GOP lawmakers on the air, and last week the number went up to 21, the most of any week in the 108th Congress.

Crist said nearly all of the bookings were related to Iraq and weapons of mass destruction: “We’re dealing with a 24/7 news cycle, and we’re trying to help these producers.”

Another GOP leadership aide said that House Republicans were annoyed not only by the way the story was being played but also by the media’s alleged bias in favor of the other body.

“A lot of the TV bookers don’t want the House Members. They’re obsessed with Senators,” the aide said, grousing that “a guy like [Sen.] Jay Rockefeller [D-W.Va.] can get rock-star treatment” while qualified House lawmakers often have trouble getting on the air.

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