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A Floating Convention?

GOP Eyes Cruise Ship for N.Y.C. Housing

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) are pushing an ambitious plan to park a luxury cruise ship in New York Harbor to serve as an exclusive floating hotel for lawmakers and lobbyists during the 2004 Republican National Convention.

DeLay, Fossella and a handful of other Republicans have discussed the idea with Norwegian Cruise Lines, which would dock the 2,200-passenger Norwegian Dawn off Manhattan for the duration of the convention, scheduled to take place Aug. 30-Sept. 2.

NCL is represented in Washington by the lobbying firm Williams & Jensen. Susan Hirschmann, the former DeLay chief of staff who is now with Williams & Jensen, has been heavily involved in the discussions, which are still in their early stages.

“Whether it’s actually going to happen, no one knows yet, but there’s a good chance that it will,” said Fossella, who represents Staten Island and is the only Republican in the city’s House delegation.

Fossella said the original idea for putting convention-goers on the ship came from NCL. NCL did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

NCL is also discussing with Democrats the possibility of docking a ship in Boston for that party’s convention next year, although the discussions are not as far along as those with the Republicans.

“We’re in contact with them and we are continuing to explore all possible options for hotel and function space,” said Stephanie Cutter, communications director for the Democratic convention.

DeLay and Fossella recently distributed a flyer from NCL at a House Republican Conference meeting. The flyer said room rates would range from $240 to $430 per night.

Members would pay NCL directly for staying on the Norwegian Dawn and thus could use campaign funds as a political expense. To Republicans, the Norwegian Dawn would be just like another New York City hotel, albeit a floating one that is not open to the press or general public. Under the company’s plan, NCL would decide who is allowed to stay aboard the ship.

“[NCL’s] focus is Members and lobbyists who want to have events on the ship,” said a GOP source familiar with the discussions. “It’s just like another hotel. There are no legal questions.”

GOP officials putting together plans for the convention had not heard of the cruise-ship proposal, but saw no problem with it moving ahead. “If they got it cleared by the lawyers, they should do it.” said one Republican official.

DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella said the arrangement would be an attractive one for Members and other convention visitors.

“We understand that some of the intrigue with the cruise ship is just because it’s a cruise ship and not a hotel, but in essence this is a floating hotel,” said Grella. “Some of the advantages include good security and a good location.”

The Miami-based NCL launched the Norwegian Dawn in December 2002. Built in Germany, the 91,000-ton, 965-foot-long vessel holds 1,100 crew and 2,200 passengers and is the maximum size allowable for passage through the Panama Canal. The ship is based in New York.

The ship has 10 restaurants and an art collection that features original works by Van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse and Monet. Amenities include a casino, basketball court, spa, jogging track, movie theater, two pools and a disco.

According to the NCL Web site, the Norwegian Dawn has five types of rooms: the 5,350 square-foot Garden Villa — which features a private outdoor jacuzzi and two steam rooms — the Owner’s Suite, the Mini-Suite, the Oceanview Stateroom and the Inside Stateroom.

Convention planners have already secured 22,000 hotel rooms for the event, and 17,000 of them are within two miles of Madison Square Garden. The Norwegian Dawn would likely be docked well outside that radius, making it a longer trip to the convention site than most other lodging choices.

Should any local opposition to the plan arise, it would likely center on the idea that Members and other guests who stay aboard the Norwegian Dawn will be depriving local hotels of revenue, though Fossella pointed out that the city would receive a hefty portion of whatever money NCL takes in from guests during the convention.

“I expect that the hotels will be fully booked,” said Fossella.

Still, local Democrats will likely protest the plan.

“Certainly the five boroughs of New York City are big enough to host the Republican convention,” said New York Rep. Anthony Weiner (D). “We want them to be comfortable, but we don’t want the convention to become a giant booze cruise for the GOP.”

It is also not clear whether providing security for a cruise ship full of lawmakers would be more difficult or require more resources than will already be allotted for protecting convention-goers.

Security for the convention is being coordinated by the U.S. Secret Service, the New York Police Department, the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a host of other state and local authorities.

The idea of using cruise ships for convention lodging predates the selection of New York as the GOP’s 2004 site. When Tampa was bidding for next year’s event, the Florida city suggested that it could use luxury liners to make up for a perceived shortage of hotel space.

This also isn’t the first time DeLay himself has advocated the use of sea vessels. During the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego, DeLay’s ARMPAC hosted several events aboard yachts.

During the 2000 GOP convention, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) arranged for about 100 lawmakers to stay in a makeshift “Congressional Village” at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Many of those Members would otherwise have had to stay at hotels 20 to 30 miles from the convention site.

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