Hill Aides Spurned

Posted June 11, 2003 at 6:22pm

Republican aides on Capitol Hill are incensed over a new White House policy to exclude virtually all Congressional staff from the semi-regular “bi-cam” meetings between President Bush and the GOP leadership.

The aides contend that they are being kept out of the meetings even as White House staffers and other senior officials, such as top Congressional lobbyist David Hobbs, continue to sit in.

“It does strike one as a little bit arrogant,” one senior Senate GOP aide said. But, the aide added, “I think that’s the way some people at the White House think about Congressional staff.”

Noting that the meetings focus on the Congressional agenda, one senior House Republican aide added, “Most people [in the GOP leadership] think it’s inappropriate for [the White House] to bring our bosses down there to discuss Congressional business and then not invite any staff to go with them.”

The aide said Members who attend the meetings are as frustrated by the exclusions as the staff, because it leaves them without aides to help jog their account of the sessions later.

A White House official denied that there are any “hard and fast rules” about whether Congressional staff can attend the meetings.

“It comes down to the space that’s available in the room and the topics that are being covered,” the official said, adding that the same factors apply to White House staff.

But Congressional sources said they have been told that the staff directive comes straight from the top and President Bush, who simply wanted less staff in the meetings.

Under the new guidelines, according to these sources, Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) top aide, Scott Palmer, and Lee Rawls, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s chief of staff, will be permitted to attend the bi-cam sessions.

The new policy appears to be the upshot of a months-long give-and-take between the White House and the Congressional GOP leadership on the staff issue. Senior Congressional aides said the White House has been seeking ways to pare down the number of aides at the bi-cam meetings, but were finding it difficult to exclude some Capitol Hill staff while allowing others to continue to attend.

“They figured they couldn’t get away with the half-way approach, so they went all-or-nothing,” one senior House GOP aide said.

The same aide said the White House has pledged to pare down the number of administration officials and staff at the meetings as well in the weeks ahead. Congressional aides remain skeptical.

One source noted that even Rawls was among the Capitol Hill aides who were kept out of the room Tuesday evening, when the GOP leadership went to the White House to discuss appropriations. (The spending meeting immediately preceded the bi-cam session.)

Rawls made the trip to the White House along with Senate Appropriations Committee Staff Director Jim Morhard and Kevin Fromer, Hastert’s policy director.

All three were forced to wait outside the door to the meeting, even though Hobbs and Candida Wolff, Vice President Cheney’s legislative affairs director, were allowed to participate.

Neither Rawls nor Palmer responded to phone calls on Wednesday.

To be sure, frustrated Congressional aides acknowledge that the personnel who are allowed into meetings at the White House reflects Bush’s sense of what’s appropriate.

Some of the meetings in the past have taken place in the White House residence, a more intimate setting that provides less space for visitors, according to a White House official.

But the exclusions have nevertheless fed resentments on Capitol Hill about what some Congressional Republicans believe to be the White House’s disregard for Congress’ role in shaping the overall agenda.

“It’s particularly unhelpful in the same week that [the White House] cut our legs out from under us on the child tax credit,” one senior House GOP aide said.

And some senior GOP aides contend that the shortage of first-hand accounts has at times had significant practical consequences, such as misunderstandings about deals and other arrangements that were sealed behind closed doors.

“When it comes down to implementing an agreement, it’s the staff that has to do that,” a senior Senate aide said, citing the appropriations process as one area where such miscommunication has been a problem.

“It’s just frustrating.”