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Heard on the Hill: The Silent Senator

After weeks of being a publicity magnet with a pack of photographers permanently attached to his hip, Sen. Roland Burris is attempting to fly way under the radar. But his efforts to go incognito only seem to be garnering the scandal-battered Illinois Democrat even more attention.

[IMGCAP(1)]Hill-watchers have noticed that Burris, weeks into his new job, has strangely little to say at many hearings that he attends: At an Armed Services Committee meeting last week on acquisition reform, Burris had no questions for the witnesses (even though Chicago-based Boeing Co. is keenly interested in the topic). “Mr. Chairman. I would rather listen than to talk,— he said. “I yield my time.—

Lips-sealed performances aside, others have noticed the newest Senator sometimes seems a tad confused. At a subcommittee hearing last week on the census, Burris used his opening statement to talk about an unrelated topic — the stimulus package. The incongruity left some in the audience scratching their heads, although Burris did eventually ask census-related questions.

His befuddled performance was little improvement from a month ago, when he sat on the GOP side of the dais at an Armed Services meeting, oblivious to the fact that he was sitting to the right of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“He seems lost, but it’s because he just doesn’t have anyone helping him out,— one Senate staffer said, noting few Senators want to befriend their controversial colleague.

Burris spokesman Jim O’Connor would only say that his boss is just keeping his nose to the grindstone. “He’s busy at work — voting and meeting with constituents,— he said.

Coble’s a Double Threat. Rep. Howard Coble isn’t getting stage fright — even though the North Carolina Republican, who is set to tread the proverbial boards for Arena Stage’s annual benefit performance on Monday night, hasn’t yet seen a script or even knows what part he’s going to play in the local-star-studded adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz.—

Spokesman Ed McDonald said his boss has been there, done that, having taken part in the same fundraiser a few years back and had a good time. “And they’ll give him the script when he gets there — I don’t think it’s that long,— he told HOH.

Coble, who’s a theater supporter, if not a big stage buff, also has a not-so-secret weapon that’s all but guaranteed to charm the audience. Unlike his co-stars, who will include D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), several members of the D.C. City Council and NBC 4 sports anchor Lindsay Czarniak, Coble’s “got that Southern accent, so he’ll at least stand out,— McDonald said.

Rimes With Psoriasis. Will they just install a red carpet outside the Capitol already? Wednesday marked yet another celeb-packed day on Capitol Hill.

Following appearances by Brad Pitt, Richard Gere and singer Billy Corgan, country singer LeAnn Rimes appeared alongside Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) at a press conference, touting legislation that would expand psoriasis research at the National Institutes of Health.

Diagnosed with the disease at age 2, Rimes had psoriasis lesions covering about 80 percent of her body by the time she was 4, she told reporters. It took years of painful treatments before Rimes could control the disease.

“Every red carpet I walked, I wore long dresses or pants,— she said.

The Grammy Award winner also met with Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), and Reps. David Wu (D-Ore.) Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) and Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.).

“We’ve had a great day,— Rimes said. “Everybody’s been incredibly responsive.—

And Menendez — who called Rimes “a shining example of the power of a celebrity voice— — couldn’t help but crack a joke about his own vocal talents.

“It’s not often that I’m the second-best singer at a Senate press conference,— Menendez quipped. “Now, who snickered?—

Rimes wasn’t the only celebrity to hit Capitol Hill on Wednesday: Singer Paul Simon met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (who hasn’t lately?) to chat about the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. And in the evening, Washington Redskins safety Reed Doughty and “Sopranos— actor Vince Curatola were set to headline a reception in the Rayburn House Office Building cafeteria marking World Kidney Day.

Specter Likes to Make ’Em Squirm. Sen. Arlen Specter on Wednesday made attendees at a Judiciary Committee hearing glad that they weren’t on the hot seat themselves. The Pennsylvania Republican, a feisty former prosecutor, grilled Lanny Breuer, the nominee to be assistant attorney general, to a crisp roast, despite some artful responses from Breuer.

Specter noted that Breuer’s biography highlighted the fact that he was an attorney for former President Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial. “Why,— Specter wanted to know, “didn’t your client appear during the course of the trial?— The verbal sparring began, with Breuer demurring with answers like, “The Senate impeachment hearing and trial was really of great testament to the brilliance of our founders …—

In full inquisition mode, Specter was having none of it. “Do you remember my question?— he pressed after more deft evasion from the witness. Finally, he hit on an answer that he could live with.

Breuer was still fumbling, “Well, I think, in considering the best representation of the president, those who were involved in that decision …— he grasped. “And, Senator, candidly, I don’t recall that I was one of those people — presumably …—

“It was not up to you?— Specter asked.

“It was not up to me,— Breuer answered.

“Well, that’s a really good answer. Why didn’t you start there?— Specter concluded.

Breuer got laughs for his response. “Senator, if I could start over, I’ll give you that one.—

Late to the Party. Most witnesses called before Congress arrive on time, ready (if not willing) to present their testimony and answer Members’ questions.

That is, of course, unless the witnesses are Members themselves.

Take what happened Wednesday, when the House Budget Committee held its annual “Members’ Day,— allowing Congressmen to appear before the panel and share their thoughts on the year’s budget.

According to an HOH spy, Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) called the hearing to order at about 10:30 a.m., right on schedule. But there was one, um, rather inconvenient problem, our spy said: “There clearly was nobody at the witness table.—

Nonetheless, Spratt called forth a number of the absent Member-witnesses (who included Reps. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.).

Nobody came forward.

After conferring with staff, Spratt ultimately was forced to call a recess until somebody showed up, our spy said.

Fortunately, Ehlers walked through the door just moments later, and the hearing got back on track.

Overheard on the Hill. “I did have a conversation with an airline employee, but it was certainly not like this silly gossip column made it out to be.—

— Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), as quoted by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, on his run-in with an airline worker — and what he really thinks of HOH.

Thanks, Senator!

Tom Williams and Eugene Mulero and George Cahlink of CongressNow contributed to this report.

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