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Campaigning in the Capitol Is Tricky Business (Video)

Sanders addressed reporters Tuesday in the Ohio Clock Corridor. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sanders addressed reporters Tuesday in the Ohio Clock Corridor. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Let’s say you’re running for president. Your opinion on a major policy issue is sought after by journalists and voters alike. As a senator, you can step in front of one of the Capitol’s many microphones at pretty much any point and command an audience. But now that you’re seeking the presidential nomination, things get a little trickier.

The perceptions, at least. And maybe also with the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

Consider Tuesday, when former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton huddled behind closed doors with congressional Democrats. The commotion that followed her around the Capitol during her daylong visit was made all the more chaotic as reporters scrambled to get a reaction to the Iran deal forged by President Barack Obama. (“Good morning!” was her cheery response.)

But Sen. Bernard Sanders chose to have his opinions heard, making a most unusual appearance at the leadership stakeout location down the hall and around the corner from where Clinton was meeting with her former colleagues in the Senate Democratic Conference.

Sanders Pushes Limits on Senate Ethics Rules

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Sanders, the Vermont independent who has been skirting an already blurry line in regard to where he can conduct presidential campaign business, was within his rights to speak with reporters. But given that most candidates take their thoughts outside the building — whether to Fox News or from the hustings in Iowa — it came off as unseemly to at least one person who has been through it before.

“Frankly, I’ve never heard of such action before. I’m not that familiar with the rules of the Senate, but I guarantee you I never would have done it,” 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain told CQ Roll Call.

“All I know is that … I believe that it’s appropriate to draw big crowds — Sen. Sanders is doing that obviously — and to comment on whatever you want to,” the Arizona Republican said. “But in the United States Senate at a stakeout? I’ve never heard of anything like that in my life, and so I’m sure somebody’s going to ask whether it’s allowed.”

Sanders was not pleased when a reporter asked just such a question about the appearance of conducting political activity just steps from the Senate floor.

“I’m not campaigning here,” Sanders said. “You’re asking me questions about it.”

So, is Sanders’ use of Senate resources an ethics violation? Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, once a presidential hopeful himself, demurred on the question, even though he sits on the Rules and Administration Committee: “You should ask Sen. [Roy] Blunt about that.”

Blunt, the committee chairman, stopped short of passing judgment.

“I have no idea what Sen. Sanders said, but most things said in the Senate deal with issues that are also the issues you deal with in a campaign,” the Missouri Republican told CQ Roll Call. “So I’d have to look at that more carefully. Nobody has mentioned it to me.”

Later on, though, the committee’s spokesman, Brian Hart, took a more definitive stance on Sanders’ remarks to the press.

“Senate property should not be used for campaign-related activities,” Hart said in a statement Wednesday evening. “The remarks delivered yesterday in the Capitol seemed designed to draw contrasts between presidential primary candidates and should have been made elsewhere.”

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It was Sanders who, after offering his reaction to the day’s nuclear agreement with Iran, volunteered comments highlighting policy disagreements with Clinton on issues ranging from bank regulation to international affairs.

“Let me also welcome Secretary Clinton back to the United States Senate, where she served for eight years. I very much look forward in this campaign to a serious debate about the very serious crises facing our country,” Sanders said. “I don’t like negative campaigns. I’ve never run a negative ad in my life. I believe the American people are entitled to serious discussion about serious issues.”

In general, the stakeout location by the Ohio Clock outside the chamber is reserved for use by the two party leaders or senators whom they designate, though plenty of senators have taken advantage of the presence of the microphones and TV cameras. Long before launching his presidential campaign, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, made one such appearance during the October 2013 government shutdown, reacting to a leadership agreement to get the government opened again.

More recently, freshman Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., spoke with reporters at the stakeout location about Obamacare legislation.

The other senators seeking the presidential nomination hold or appear at plenty of events around the Capitol grounds, and Clinton, McCain and Obama were faced with questions about their candidacies in the building during their 2008 bids as they also served in the Senate.

At the start of his candidacy, Sanders bumped up against ethics rules that prohibit campaigning of any kind in the Capitol complex.

He was scheduled to hold a news conference at the Senate Radio/TV gallery to “discuss his agenda for America.” As questions arose (given he surely would be asked about his campaign and national platform), Sanders’ office announced a location change to the Senate Swamp two hours before the presser was scheduled to start. It didn’t change the murkiness surrounding Sanders’ expected announcement, given the location can only be reserved by members of Congress not public demonstrators or candidates.

(Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
(Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

On Wednesday, Cruz held a news conference on the House side of the Capitol about the Ex-Im Bank debate, an issue before Congress but also something which he has campaigned on.

It’s not easy to strike the right balance between competing interests from political parties, campaign aides and fundraising demands. The senators-turned-candidates are regularly missing votes and using their work inside the Capitol to prop them up outside of it.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., said it was “not uncommon” for his colleagues to use the bay of microphones near the Ohio Clock to talk and take questions when important issues, such as the Iran deal, are up for debate.

First elected to the Senate in 2000, Carper has watched 11 sitting senators campaign to be commander in chief during his tenure in the chamber, including fellow Delaware Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr. Asked Wednesday if it was fair to use that platform to talk about a presidential campaign, Carper was reserved.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know. It’s something maybe we could think about, but it’s not a big deal. There’s a lot of bigger deals for us to work on,” he added.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, who launched a bid for the GOP nomination in 2000, while representing Utah in the Senate, said he was wary to weigh in on how Democrats operate their caucus. “If he has the guts to get up there and do that, then I don’t think many people are going to interfere,” he said.

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.


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