WASHINGTON – Smokers may be one minority in Congress with even fewer rights than newly demoted Republicans. Now they are losing one of their last, cherished prerogatives — a smoke break in the ornate Speaker's Lobby just off the House floor.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced a ban Wednesday, effective immediately.
"The days of smoke-filled rooms in the United States Capitol are over," Pelosi said. "Medical science has unquestionably established the dangerous effects of secondhand smoke, including an increased risk of cancer and respiratory diseases. I am a firm believer that Congress should lead by example."
Lawmakers will be free to light up in their own offices. But no longer can they mingle in the Speaker's Lobby in a haze of cigarette smoke during House votes, as they did just Tuesday night while passing anti-terrorism legislation.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, is a heavy smoker, often found at the center of a group puffing away in a corner of the lobby. He had little to say Wednesday about Pelosi's move. Questioned at a news conference, Boehner described it as "fine." He did not elaborate.
Smoking is banned in most federal buildings. The District of Columbia recently barred it in public areas, as has Pelosi's home district of San Francisco and a few other cities.
So congressional smokers will be forced outside — onto the balcony off the Speaker's Lobby, perhaps.
"That's how life is now. They're banning smoking everywhere," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., an occasional smoker.
The scent of California GOP Rep. David Dreier's cigars has filled the third floor of the Capitol, especially during visits from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Dreier took Pelosi's decision in stride.
"I like to have an occasional cigar in my office," Dreier said, but "she's the speaker of the House, she can make these kinds of decisions. ... No one wants to encourage smoking."
The news had not filtered to everyone early Wednesday. There were still ash trays in the Speaker's Lobby and around noon a House official sank into an armchair and lit a cigarette. Informed about the hours-old ban, he made his way to the balcony.
By the time the first House votes came in the late afternoon, the ash trays had disappeared.
Capitol Hill smokers have seen their habitat shrink for more than a decade. In 1993, then-Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., banned smoking in hallways and other public areas. Last year, smoking was banned within 25 feet of the entrances to House office buildings.
Reminders of the days when tobacco was king remain throughout the Capitol.
Tobacco was a leading export of the early colonies and a mainstay of the economy well into the 20th century, a fact recognized in the tobacco-leaf motifs carved into the top of many of Capitol's columns.
Cigarettes can be purchased in a House store and are sold by the carton at a sundry shop underneath the Hart and Dirksen Senate office buildings where the phone is answered, "Hart tobacco shop."
There is no smoking in public areas near the Senate floor. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg is trying to get rid of cigarette sales at the tobacco shop.