House Republicans waged their most fiery floor debate of the nascent 110th Congress last week over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) prospective use of military aircraft to transport her home to her San Francisco district.
A formerly mundane courtesy extended to the office second in line of succession to the presidency sparked a firestorm of criticism from Republicans seeking to exploit the issue on a message of fiscal conservatism versus liberal largess.
While the bulk of the GOP’s accusations against Pelosi’s requested use of military jets was not substantiated by either the Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood or the White House, Republicans took advantage of the slow response from the Speaker’s office to a story that dominated news coverage for much of last week, and the House floor on Thursday. It was, if nothing else, a lesson on spin control.
“The error in the handling in that story is that they let it get traction in the first place,” conceded one Democratic aide, adding that Democrats could have controlled the story if a more orchestrated rapid response had been put in place when the issue was first reported Feb. 1 in The Washington Times and followed up by a number of news outlets, including Roll Call.
It took one week for Pelosi’s camp and the Sergeant-at-Arms office to begin to forcefully combat the accusations coming from across the aisle — including speculation that Pelosi had demanded the use of a luxury jetliner with extravagant accommodations not afforded to former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
In fact, Livingood later clarified that he had requested an aircraft that could fly nonstop to Pelosi’s district only for security reasons, and that the Pentagon needed to clarify the guidelines as to who could accompany Pelosi in flight because no such guidelines existed.
In the lag time, Republicans went full-speed ahead. In a two-hour debate on the floor, every effort was made to criticize Pelosi as everything from a hypocrite on the issue of global warming to a poor steward of taxpayer dollars.
“We’re in the midst of repairing our brand when it comes to fiscal responsibility,” said one GOP leadership aide. “Anytime we can highlight their ‘bridge to nowhere’ it’s a win for us.”
Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), one of the Members who led the debate, said Pelosi’s use of the plane was “at the very least inappropriate and an unnecessary extravagance.”
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said the plane was a metaphor for big government. “I think it is a little bit silly, some of the public consternation about a Democratic Speaker’s airplane needing to be much bigger than a Republican Speaker’s airplane,” he said. “Because to the extent that the airplane itself is a metaphor for government, I believe that we can expect all of the government will continue to need to be much bigger under a Democratic majority in Congress.”
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) even took a shot at Pelosi’s favorite sweet. “We don’t get to eat chocolate” on airplanes, he said. “We can have our choice of some crackers or peanuts. We don’t have a crew of 16 at our disposal. So as we sit in those middle seats because of the last-minute time that we have to catch a flight, many of us might think that, you know, we need someone to lead us by example.”
While Pelosi ultimately is expected to gain access to the aircraft, and the memory of the debate could fade as Congress moves forward to more substantive issues, Republicans also walked away from the debate confident that they had begun chipping away at Pelosi’s image.
“At some point you want to take apart that ‘Italian grandmother from Baltimore’ image,” said a GOP leadership aide. “She had a honeymoon period all through January, and they did such a good job introducing her as Speaker. We have to be careful in our tone, but we can’t be afraid to be the opposition.”
A Democratic aide countered that Republicans have lost their ability to argue substance so they are making it personal. “They can’t win on the issues so they want to impugn her character,” the aide said. “Is this really all they’ve got?”
The debate also revealed the Republicans who are more willing to go on the attack in the minority. Members of the Republican Study Committee, the conservative faction of the Republican Conference, dominated the debate, and Cantor led on the issue.
Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) did not speak on the floor, nor did he provoke the issue. “It’s just not his style,” said another GOP leadership aide, adding that Boehner did not discourage Members from the floor fight.
In a sign of how times have changed, the biggest bust to House Republicans came from the White House, where spokesman Tony Snow came to Pelosi’s defense and derided it as a “silly” story just as the GOP was trying to launch the floor debate.
Multiple GOP aides said late last week that there was palpable frustration among the rank and file who were trying to capitalize on what they viewed as an easy political hit. “Yes, absolutely there was frustration,” added a senior GOP aide. “All they had to do was not comment on it.”
Some eager Democratic aides pointed to Snow’s comments as a sign of early “triangulation” by the White House to avoid provoking the new Congressional leadership, but Republicans denied it. “There is no triangulation, none,” said another GOP aide.