Good Humor Men

Posted July 11, 2003 at 6:37pm

Everyone was buzzing when a large contingent of Republican Senators decided to coordinate their outfits, summer suits and saddle shoes for “Seersucker Thursday” last week.

Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) was overheard on the Senate floor poking fun at a sometime rival, GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), whose appearance was made particularly jarring by the addition of a bow tie.

“Can I buy a popsicle from you?” cracked Nickles.

Santorum told HOH that Nickles wasn’t the only colleague to tease him. “I got a lot of, ‘One scoop or two scoops?’” he recalled with a smile.

The peer pressure grew so intense that freshman Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who missed the initial e-mail about the wardrobe coordination, headed back to his apartment after lunch to change into his seersucker.

“It’s not too often you have a chance to dress in wash-and-wear clothing on the floor of the Senate,” Coleman told HOH. “Also, I’ve always admired Southern hospitality, gentility and style.”

Sen. Conrad Burns (Mont.), who’s known for his sharp tongue, was not shy about telling his fellow Republicans why he decided not to participate.

“Conrad said, ‘You know why they call ’em seersuckers?’” recalled Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.). “‘Some sucker went into Sears.’”

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Nothing cuts through the healthy egos of Senators faster than a meeting with a celebrity who doesn’t take himself too seriously, which may explain why baseball Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith was treated like royalty when he breezed through the Capitol corridors last Thursday.

Smith, who was in town to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at that evening’s 42nd Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game, didn’t do any of his signature backflips in the Capitol. But he might as well have done so — given the warm reception he received.

After being escorted into the Family Gallery of the Senate chamber by Bond, the senior Senator from Smith’s home state of Missouri, the retired baseball star camped out in the Senate Reception Room to greet lawmakers.

The former St. Louis Cardinals star was mobbed by a stream of autograph-seeking Doorkeepers, Senate pages, staffers, reporters and Senators. The same scenario had played out during a morning tour of the White House, when Smith ran into a thrilled Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

“I felt like a rock star for a day,” a beaming Smith told HOH later in the day.

As Smith held court in the reception area, which is where lobbyists normally ply their trade, some lawmakers tried to lobby him. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) pressed Smith for help in honoring the late baseball great Larry Doby, a New Jersey native who broke the color barrier in the American League.

The most forceful bit of lobbying came from Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.), who urged Smith to help get the late Roger Maris elected to the Hall of Fame. Armed with a litany of statistics, Dorgan then left Smith and started lobbying officials from the Baseball Hall of Fame, who accompanied Smith around town.

But the most priceless moment may have come after Bond asked Smith if he ever faced Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), the Hall of Fame pitcher notorious for his brushback pitches. Smith diplomatically explained that the 71-year-old Senator played in a previous era.

“He’d stick one in your ear,” Bond laughed, using the terminology for nailing a batter with a pitch. “He’s the meanest guy I know.”

Then Bond rushed back to the Senate floor to pull Bunning out of the president’s chair to see Smith. The Hall of Famers got along famously, until HOH passed along Bond’s claim to Bunning.

“I would never do that to Ozzie,” Bunning insisted.

Unhappy Hour. Thirsty House and Senate staffers working on the Medicare prescription drug bill lost their chance to have health care conglomerate Johnson & Johnson foot the bill for cocktails last Thursday.

Common Cause raised a stink about the event that was supposed to take place at the Capitol Hill hot spot Lounge 201. That apparently led House officials to advise staffers that the bash might violate ethics rules barring staffers from receiving gifts from persons “having a direct interest in particular legislation the staff is working on at the time.”

Since the invitation noted Johnson & Johnson’s appreciation for staffers’ “part in the historic passage of Medicare drug bills in both houses of Congress (as well as the living hell most of you will be subjected to during the conference),” the ethics panel advised aides to stay away.

“Because it referenced the Medicare bill, they thought it looked like quid pro quo,” said Charles Nau, director of federal affairs for Johnson & Johnson. “While it certainly wasn’t intended as quid pro quo, we cancelled it anyway.”

Nau said he was responsible for what he described as the “boneheaded wording” of the invitation and said the company had no plans to reschedule the soiree.

But Medicare staffers may still be able to partake in free booze and food this Thursday at a “health care happy hour” sponsored by a coalition of pharmaceutical and hospital trade groups, which is being organized by the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers.

Because they sponsor such events every three or four months, several lobbyists said they feel the event is on safe ethical grounds.

Besides, they worded the invitation a little more carefully: “Most of the time we’re looking for leverage. This night, we’d love to just share an ice cold beverage,” the invite said, according to one lobbyist.

Cantor Moves On. Drew Cantor, longtime spokesman for the Senate Republican Conference, is shifting gears and will become a lobbyist for the American Insurance Association.

He has spent four-and-a-half years as the senior communications adviser for then-GOP Conference Chairman Connie Mack (Fla.) and then the current chairman. He previously served as press secretary for Rep. Sue Kelly (R-N.Y.).

Cantor, who begins at AIA next month, will be replaced in the communications role at the GOP Conference by Elizabeth Keys.

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.