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Democrats handpick reform bill audience

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 29, 2009

House Democrats blocked the public from attending the unveiling ceremony of their health care bill Thursday morning, allowing only pre-approved visitors whose names appeared on lists to enter the event at the West Front of the Capitol.

The audience at the crowded press conference included Hill staffers, union workers, health care providers and students, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who thanked them for attending.

Mrs. Pelosi and other Democratic leaders announced the chamber's long-awaited version of a health care overhaul, which would expand insurance coverage to 36 million uninsured Americans, costing less than $900 billion over 10 years.

The West Front of the Capitol -- where President Obama was inaugurated -- is traditionally open to the public. But the entrances were blocked off Thursday morning by metal fences, with Capitol Police officers standing next to staff members holding clipboards with lists of approved attendees.

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"The steps of the Capitol are and should be open to the public," Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said on the House floor Thursday night. But House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, denied the charge.

"I was there. I saw nobody turned away. I saw nobody precluded from attending," he told Mr. Cantor.

Videos posted on YouTube, including by Mr. Cantor's office, showed people being turned away by staffers or police. In the video from Mr. Cantor's office, a police officer tells a Republican staffer they are being denied access "per the speaker's staff."

YouTube video: People being turned away from the health-care bill ceremony.

Reporters with press badges were able to get in but persons who didn't show official identification were turned away at the metal gates.

Democrats repeatedly touted the openness of the development of their health care bill, which Mr. Hoyer at the event called "the most deliberative, transparent and open process" he had seen in his career on Capitol Hill.

"Our event had more than 250 people present, primarily supporters, but also some protesters," said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat and head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Our blended bill was posted online this morning. In contrast, the Republican event today was open only to credentialed media and GOP staffers. More importantly, it's been 134 days and they still haven't shown the American people their bill or pledged to post it online for 72 hours like we have."

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Several protesters gathered outside the fenced-in event. Near the beginning of Mrs. Pelosi's remarks, a man shouted on a megaphone that Democrats would "go to hell for this," to which she quipped: "Thank you, insurance companies of America."

Republicans held their event in the House television studio, a standard location for press conferences. Press gallery rules restrict access to members of Congress who have been invited to appear, and to their press secretaries.

By Thursday evening Republicans were using the closed-to-the-public event as a fundraising tool.

"Pelosi and her liberal allies want us to know as little about this legislation as possible, because it cannot stand up to public scrutiny. Why else would Pelosi forbid the public from attending the event?" the National Republican Congressional Committee said in its plea for contributions.

A 2008 Congressional Research Service report says using the Capitol's West Front usually requires a joint resolution of Congress, though in some cases a simple police permit will suffice.

"Events that entail the use of the West Front Steps of the Capitol, electricity on the Lower West Terrace of the Capitol, require more than 24 hours from setup to cleanup, require vehicles on Capitol Grounds for setup, or will have a large number of Members in attendance typically require a concurrent resolution," the report said.

Congress did not pass such a resolution. Asked about whether a special permit was issued, a Capitol Police spokeswoman referred calls to the House Sergeant at Arms Office, which didn't return calls seeking comment. Mrs. Pelosi's spokesman also didn't return messages asking about the authorization to close down the space.

Republicans said when they held their own energy event last year on the West Front of the Capitol the public was not prohibited and that protestors were present.