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Pryce Declares White House ‘Dropped the Ball’

Among Republicans, it’s already known as “the picture”: President Bush flanked by several grinning male lawmakers as he signed the late-term abortion bill on Wednesday.

The image, printed across the front page of newspapers and looped into television newscasts, was seized by many Democrats as a symbol of Republican indifference toward women’s rights. And it has ignited anger toward the White House from female GOP Members shocked by the awkward staging.

“Somebody dropped the ball over there,” GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) said on Friday.

Pryce, who had been unable to attend the event due to a prior commitment, said she has upbraided White House officials over the apparent snafu.

“I think they understand this was a big mistake,” Pryce said. “We handed the other party a gift that morning.”

How it came to be that no women appeared on stage with the president is still something of a mystery. Several female lawmakers, including Reps. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.), Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), attended the event but were consigned to seats in the audience.

One senior House GOP aide said administration officials suggested the outcome was the result of a clash in priorities between the White House legislative affairs shop and the White House communications operation.

According to this aide, the communications people expressed concern about the all-male lineup slated to appear with the president, but faced a numbers question.

“The legislative shop said ‘Either we do 10 Members or we do 200,’” the aide said. Since there was consensus that the latter number was far too large, the issue became which of the Members asked to be on stage could be replaced.

At that point, legislative affairs officials pointed out there would be what the Congressional aide called “hierarchical mutiny” if they tried to substitute out any of the group of Members, which included Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and key lawmakers involved in moving the legislation.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan disputed this version of events, saying the issue was more one of practicality. Invitations had been sent to every Member who had voted for the legislation in both chambers, and there was no way to accommodate them all on stage with the president, Buchan noted. The late-term abortion bill got 282 votes in the House, plus 64 in the Senate.

“We decided only to have the direct sponsors of the bill on stage,” Buchan said.

Beside Hastert and DeLay, the crescent of lawmakers behind the president included House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), plus Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and James Oberstar (Minn.), the lone Democrat on the dais.

Though she hadn’t been on stage with the president, Hart, a chief co-sponsor of the abortion legislation, was nonetheless featured by the GOP Conference in outreach to television stations interested in speaking with Members about the ban.

A spokesman for Hart said he doesn’t think his boss even noticed the missing ingredient — the Congresswoman hadn’t expressed any displeasure, in any event.

“We were just very happy that this landmark vote happened,” Hart spokesman Lee Cohen said.

Elsewhere, though, Republican aides expressed dismay at the image that was presented, plus some bewilderment that the White House, which has earned a reputation for shrewd PR tactics, had left an opening for Democrats to attack.

“I think it was just scheduling conflicts and people couldn’t get there, but it turned out bad,” one senior GOP aide said. “It wasn’t a very diverse picture, let’s just put it that way.”

Democrats picked up on the symbolic impact of the photo almost immediately. Images from the event began arriving in journalists’ e-mail within minutes of its completion, circulated by Democratic staffers hoping to highlight the male-rich visual.

Democratic leaders took the cue as well, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), for one, calling the image of the men on stage with the president “a slap in the face to women.”

“It was disconcerting to see a group of men celebrating a ban on a medical procedure that could save a woman’s life,” Pelosi said Friday. “I was saddened to see their smiling faces, that they were celebrating something that was so disrespectful to women.”

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly mused, “It’s pretty unbelievable [for the Republicans], because they’re usually very good from a PR standpoint.”

The bill signed by Bush last week was the third such measure to reach the president’s desk in recent years as Congress sought the president’s signature for a ban on the so-called late-term abortion procedure. Two previous bills were vetoed at the time by President Clinton.

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