Reporter's Notebook: House Leadership Candidates Caught in 'Office' Politics

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House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, wants to keep his office.

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., wants Boehner's office.

And Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., is interested in Lungren's office space.

These three pursuits merged Friday afternoon on the fourth floor of the Rayburn House Office Building. And it was punctuated by the freakish discovery of a white powdery substance near Lungren's office at the very nanosecond he announced he would challenge Boehner for his leadership post.

This confluence of events all orbits around one of the most revered traditions in Washington: the hunt for a better office.

There are few commodities on Capitol Hill more prized than good office space. Some lawmakers choose offices because of their access to the floor. Senior lawmakers practically wrestle each other for coveted locales in the Rayburn Building that offer panoramic views of the Capitol Dome. Others pick offices because they're down the hall from their committees. Some choose offices for square footage. Still others, like freshman Rep. Zack Space, R-Ohio, select offices because of their historical nature (Space picked the same office JFK occupied when he served in the House).

If you're in leadership, the deal sweetens -- you get two offices.

As a senior House member, Boehner has long occupied one of the largest office suites on Capitol Hill, at the back of the Longworth Building. As the top Republican in the House, he also enjoys a palatial leadership suite in the Capitol just off the House floor.

This is the time of year when lawmakers decide who stays and who goes in House and Senate leadership. But it's also the time of year when Congress is playing its version of musical chairs -- hosting lotteries for incoming and sitting lawmakers to determine who gets to upgrade their office-space digs. Seniority means everything here, and the competition is heated.

It is this closely watched ritual that leads us back to Boehner, Lungren and Rehberg.

There were rumblings for days that Lungren might launch an effort to unseat Boehner. House conservatives are reeling from the 50-plus seats Republicans hemorrhaged over the last two election cycles. Some are demanding Boehner's head. I had good intelligence that Lungren would finally decide Friday whether to mount a challenge to the Republican leader from Ohio.

I positioned a camera near Lungren's office in the Rayburn Building Friday afternoon. But after getting no response on e-mail or phone whether Lungren was running, I hoofed it over there to find out.

I no sooner arrived in Rayburn when the assignment desk called. They wanted to know if I knew anything about a "powdery substance" found somewhere on the Hill. I hadn't. I did some checking and quickly found that police were responding to an incident on the fourth floor of Rayburn. "Perfect," I thought. Because that's where my shooter was staking out Lungren's office.

I rushed up the fourth floor to find the police had closed the hallway and summoned hazardous materials technicians to investigate. Right in front of Lungren's office.

I then spied an agitated Rep. Rehberg and a few of his staffers. They were in the middle of the office lottery and were checking out potential workspaces for the new Congress. Two of the offices they were eligible for were down the cordoned-off hall, one of which belonged to Lungren.

The office lottery works like the NFL draft. Once a member of Congress goes up on the board, they have 20 minutes to make their decision. Aides track which offices other lawmakers have already snapped up and maintain a running tally of the best remaining venues. It's exactly how NFL clubs trace whether a rival team already drafted that flashy wide receiver out of Auburn and whether they only have a few minutes to decide whether to pick that big guard from Michigan or a linebacker from USC.

So Rehberg was on the office lottery clock. Only he couldn't get to the offices he needed to check out to make a decision. He paced the hall hoping the House Administration Committee (which controls the office lottery) would suspend the clock until police resolved the hazardous material situation.

Then came an e-mail from Lungren's staff. He was in fact challenging Boehner. Only here's the problem: police barricaded Lungren and his staff in their office while they conducted their investigation. And they wouldn't let journalists like me down the hall to talk with him.

So Rehberg and I prowled the hall as more police flooded the area. We both wanted to get down to Lungren's office. Rehberg to do a walk-through. Me to interview Lungren about wanting Boehner's office.

I joked with Rehberg that knowing Boehner's wit, he probably deposited the powdery substance near Lungren's office as a practical gag in retaliation for Lungren challenging him for leader.

After a lengthy investigation, police finally re-opened the hallway. Everything was fine. It turns out someone in the office of Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., opened an envelope of constituent mail and a powdery substance sifted out. The hazardous materials investigators determined the powder wasn't harmful. Baird's office is directly across the hall from Lungren's.

So we all flowed down the hall again. Rehberg was back on the clock and skipped into Lungren's office for a look-see. Then a few other reporters and myself followed in pursuit of Lungren.

Lungren told us his computer also went haywire about the same time of the hazardous material call. Of course the hallway closure stymied the IT people from getting to Lungren's computer to fix it.

Boehner and Lungren have a good relationship. And Lungren said he called Boehner earlier in the day to inform him of his intentions to run against him. But Lungren said he almost phoned Boehner again in jest to ask if the suspicious substance incident and the computer crash was a coordinated attack against his leadership campaign.

Of course Boehner didn't do anything to thwart Lungren's desire to climb the leadership ladder.

And certainly there was no effort by a rival lawmaker to block Rehberg from checking out possible offices while he was on the clock.

But skirmishes for choice offices can be so intense, it wouldn't have surprised any Capitol Hill veteran to learn this was a conspiracy. This is office politics, Washington-style.

Perhaps they should hire volunteer sheriff's deputy Dwight Schrute to investigate.

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.