The filibuster, the right of lawmakers to seize control of the floor to speak, is historically the province of the United States Senate.
But on Friday, that Senate tradition mutated across Capitol Hill to the House. Specifically to the weekly press conference held by embattled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
About 60 reporters rubbered into Pelosi’s ceremonial office Friday morning to query the Speaker about what she may have known about waterboarding and for more about her extraordinary charge that the CIA lied to Congress. Pelosi’s effort to tamp down the story spun wildly out of control at last week’s briefing as the Speaker’s comments seemed to fan the embers of an already white-hot inferno. In fact, Pelosi’s allegation that the CIA misled Congress came after her press secretary Nadeam Elshami barked “last question” at reporters and the Speaker started out of the room. Only then did the Speaker do an about-face and respond to several more questions. Her answers during that section of the press conference are widely blamed for further inflaming the very controversy she was trying to douse.
The Speaker wouldn’t make the same mistake two weeks in a row.
On Friday morning, Pelosi called for reinforcements to what was practically the only event of the day on Capitol Hill. Reporters audibly murmured when the Speaker entered the room, surprised to see her flanked by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-CA) and assistant to the Speaker Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). A formidable offensive line squared up to protect their valuable quarterback.
“So you’re going to gang up on us?” hollered one reporter of Hoyer. The usually-genial Hoyer this week extensively accused the press this week of facilitating Republican criticism of Pelosi.
Other lawmakers rarely tag along with Pelosi to her weekly press conferences. The only instance in recent memory came two weeks ago when Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) accompanied the Speaker to discuss a credit card reform bill. However, it’s not unheard of for the Democratic and Republican leadership teams to appear together to discuss legislative achievements at the start of a Congressional recess. Lawmakers are now out for a week for the Memorial Day break.
But most reporters in the room viewed the presence of Hoyer, Becerra and Van Hollen as a filibuster tactic. An effort to deflect attention away from the waterboarding controversy and chew up valuable Q&A time with the Speaker.
Sure enough, it was.
Pelosi started the presser by hailing the energy and climate change bill approved late last night by the Energy and Commerce Committee. She went to great lengths to praise the panel’s chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA).
“Henry Waxman was masterful. A virtuoso,” Pelosi gleamed about her California colleague.
Except reporters really didn’t want to ask about the climate change bill or hear about Waxman’s legislative acumen.
Then Hoyer spoke about health care.
That was followed by Becerra and Van Hollen weighing in on the credit card measure the House okayed this week. Becerra even held up a copy of his credit card statement to help make a point. Van Hollen spoke about his teenage daughter.
Pick your metaphor here. The reporters were pacing back and forth like caged animals. Or they would have been had the room not been packed so tightly. Or the journalists were like planes circling at JFK, waiting for clearance from the tower to land and ask about the CIA. Reporters squirmed in their seats. Some sighed and slumped back in their chairs. Others dialed through their BlackBerries. Almost all ceased taking notes.
When the Speaker turned to questions, she first called on Anne Flaherty of the Associated Press. The scribes groaned and when Flaherty asked about who Pelosi would like to appoint to a special commission to investigate what caused the financial crisis. Flaherty asked a follow-up on the same topic. The reporters fidgeted more.
Finally, Jill Jackson of CBS shoehorned in a question about the waterboarding controversy. The Speaker may as well have brought along a trowel and bag of Sakrete cement mix for the masonry she was about to erect between her and questions about the CIA.
“I have made the statement that I’m going to make on this,” Pelosi said. “I don’t have anything more to say about it. I stand by my comment.”
Jackson and others pressed their case. There was a cacophony of questions. For a moment, it was hard to make out anything over the din.
“I won’t have anything more to say about it. Another subject?” the Speaker inquired.
She then scanned the room, looking for another reporter to call on. Alan Ota of Congressional Quarterly was a worthy target, asking about lobbying.
It was clear Pelosi was done with the waterboarding scandal.
Republicans watching the press conference on live TV were quick to lambaste the Speaker for what she didn’t say.
“Speaker Pelosi stammered and filibustered around the elephant in the room because she knows full well that she has become a political liability to her fellow Democrats in Congress,” blasted Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) countered that it is “simply unacceptable” for the Speaker to not produce evidence supporting her claim and accused the Speaker of “stonewalling.”
Pelosi may have requested Mssrs. Hoyer, Becerra and Van Hollen attend the briefing to talk about other issues. But for this event, the Speaker was accompanied by someone even closer to her than her leadership squad: filmmaker daughter Alexandra Pelosi.
Best known for her documentary “Journeys with George” where she followed then-candidate George W. Bush around the country in 2000, Alexandra kneeled on the carpet in a dress, her right-hand contoured around her Cannon video camera. Alexandra shot video of her mom. But also spent a great bit of time zooming in on members of the press corps. She grabbed a tight shot of the Speaker and Hoyer briefly chatting while Becerra and Van Hollen spoke.
Alexandra traveled to Baltimore Thursday when the Speaker gave the commencement address at Johns Hopkins University and captured some video there, too.
Alexandra isn’t working on a project about her mother. Apparently just shooting stuff for herself. As the Speaker finally abandoned the lectern and started to leave the room, I told her I noticed her daughter was there and asked if she was working on a film about the first female Speaker.
“She always goes with (her camera),” the Speaker responded. “Alexandra is never without her camera, whether it be around the house…”
The Speaker was cut off as her aides ushered her out of the room. And unlike last week, fated misstep, the Speaker didn’t return.
The press has excoriated Pelosi over the past week. Without question its been the roughest media coverage of her Speakership. Skeptical reporters have dogged her everywhere she’s gone. And it may have been particularly foreboding Friday morning when she stared out into the sea of reporters, all clamoring to ask her about interrogations.
But for the Pelosi there was at least one friendly face behind one of the cameras: Alexandra. Not someone there to trip up the Speaker over what she knew about waterboarding. But just a daughter shooting home movies of her mom.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.