Two Chambers, One Message

Posted April 25, 2008 at 6:23pm

House and Senate Republicans aim to build on last week’s sudden outburst in bicameral messaging on gas prices and the Colombia free-trade agreement as a way to remain in the public view at least through November. Their intent: to score political points against Democrats despite being in the minority and having to compete with the marquee White House race.

House Republican leaders kicked off the last week with the “Pelosi Premium” message, seeking to link Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and her fellow Democrats to spiking gas prices. Unlike many similar efforts cooked up by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that have gone unconnected to the Senate, the upper chamber’s GOP leadership jumped on board.

Within days, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other Republicans went on the floor to lambaste Democrats’ “secret common-sense” plan for gas prices, using campaign promises by Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and other Democrats from 2006 as the hook for an often cheeky attack.

“There are no flowers to commemorate this anniversary,” Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) said during a floor speech Thursday, accusing Pelosi and Reid of breaking their promise to bring down prices.

The push proved successful, as Republicans attracted attention for the simultaneous attack.

“It’s through a unified strategy and message that we put a face on the failings of the Democrat-controlled Congress. The American people don’t care about the differences between the House and the Senate –– that’s inside baseball. So, if we can brand the Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader as the faces of the Democrats’ failings, then we’ve done pretty well,” said Blunt’s communications director, Antonia Ferrier.

“That’s what we’ve tried to accomplish with the Pelosi Premium. During a presidential election year, the way we shine a spotlight on the paltry accomplishments of the Democratic majority is by working together,” she said.

Boehner’s press secretary, Michael Steel, agreed. “Particularly in a presidential year, when its very hard to drive a message from Capitol Hill, we naturally improve our chances of the American people hearing us if we’re all rolling in the same direction … we do our best work when our guns are pointed in the same direction.”

Steel and others said the heart of those efforts is an informal communication and message strategy network that has sprung up at the staff level in recent months, thanks in part to the fact that an increasing number of top aides have spent time in the both chambers and understand the different mechanics.

Since their fall from the majority in 2006, Boehner, McConnell and other members of the two Republican leadership teams have met regularly. Republicans acknowledge the starkly different personalities of the two chambers has often made it difficult for effective bicameral messaging.

While the House is the Wild West of politics where Members will often try to outpartisan each other, the Senate, with its fewer Members, longer terms and easily manipulated rules, is a calmer atmosphere where measured responses often are at a premium.

But in a presidential election year where all three of the leading candidates reside in the Senate and an invigorated Pelosi has asserted her control of the House, Republicans in both chambers acknowledge the need for a more unified approach.

Ferrier is a recent transplant to the House from the Senate, as is Blunt’s press secretary, Nick Simpson, who worked for former Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

“I think House and Senate leadership do a pretty good job of coordinating messaging. There are times when Reid or a Senate Democrat says something that’s just too good for us in the House to ignore. And similarly, there are times when the Speaker or a House Democrat will say something that Senate Republicans can’t resist using as a messaging tool. We share what we are doing, what we are saying and what we are planning across both chambers,” Ferrier said.

Steel said the cross-pollinating between the two chambers has greatly increased their ability to coordinate.

“We wound up with a situation in where Antonia knows the Senate really well, and Nick knows the Senate really well,” Steel said.

At the same time, a number of House aides have made the transition to the Senate in recent years, including Ryan Loskarn, communications director for the Senate Republican Conference; Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) spokesman Brian Walsh; and Jordan Stoick, who works for Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

“Ryan’s a good friend of mine, and he’s been a good friend of mine for years,” Steel said, explaining that his personal and working relationships with these and other former House aides have promoted informal communication that often end up as the basis of messaging strategy.