Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Smoking has become the hot topic on Capitol Hill.

Who is, who isn’t, and where the lawmakers puff — closeted or not — are among the whispers in the hallways and on the presidential campaign trail.

There have been at least 35 news reports about Sen. Barack Obama’s long battle with a cigarette habit, and how the Illinois Democrat has been chewing Nicorette to kick that habit as he runs for president.

And in the latest installment, staffers for Rep. Keith Ellison tattled to Capitol Police that Rep. Tom Tancredo was smoking a cigar inside his congressional office.

“We already have the biggest air-purifying unit you can get, and I would be happy to try to make sure that it’s even less odiferous around here, but I’m not going to stop because we still have the right to do so,” Mr. Tancredo, Colorado Republican, told The Washington Times.

An officer investigating the report informed Mr. Ellison, Minnesota Democrat, that smoking is allowed in the private offices, the Hill newspaper first reported yesterday.

Calling his office in the Longworth building “our own little castle,” Mr. Tancredo said he would have preferred a personal visit from his next-door neighbor.

Mr. Tancredo, seeking the 2008 Republican nomination for president, added, “He can get an air-purifying system for his office.”

Mr. Ellison’s office did not respond to calls for comment yesterday, but spokesman Rick Jauert told the Hill that he first called the Capitol superintendent when he noticed smoke “coming through the walls.” That office referred Mr. Jauert to the police, and he informed his boss that he had made the report.

Mr. Tancredo said he has never met Mr. Ellison, who has gotten his fair share of headlines.

In November, Mr. Ellison became the first Muslim in recent times to be elected to Congress. Then, Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., Virginia Republican, protested Mr. Ellison’s use of the Koran for his swearing-in. In a letter to constituents, Mr. Goode complained that if strict immigration laws are not enacted, “more Muslims” will be elected and will demand “the use of the Koran.”

The dust-up created national headlines and highlighted philosophical differences on immigration policy.

Mr. Tancredo noted that the only time he has even referenced Mr. Ellison was to defend his use of the Koran.

But the Colorado congressman has a friend in Mr. Goode, who delivered a gift to Mr. Tancredo’s office after learning of the cigar incident.

Mr. Tancredo said that he knew the envelope from Mr. Goode contained a cigar, but that he hadn’t yet read the letter. He opened the note and read it to a reporter for The Times.

“We have a policy in my office of allowing one to smoke from tobacco country if he or she so chooses,” Mr. Tancredo read from the letter, pausing to stifle laughter. “We extend this courtesy to an outstanding presidential candidate. Hope you can use it in your office. If you can’t, come on up to mine.”

Others, including Minority Leader John A. Boehner, have felt like pariahs lately, especially since Speaker Nancy Pelosi banned puffing in the Speaker’s Lobby off the House floor.

Mr. Boehner, a chain-smoking Ohio Republican, told reporters gathered for the Washington Press Club Foundation dinner last week that he isn’t fond of Mrs. Pelosi’s decision.

“We can still smoke out on the balcony. But, Nancy, it was 20 degrees out there. I think I want a seat on your global warming committee,” he told the California Democrat.

As for Mr. Obama, reporters seem obsessed with him kicking the habit.

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times opened her latest column thus: “Barack Obama looked as if he needed a smoke and he needed it bad.”

After a long Chicago Tribune story about Mr. Obama’s smoking, ABC News did a piece on its Web site about Michelle Obama demanding that her husband quit those Marlboros before embarking on a rigorous campaign for the White House. Both articles quoted numerous health advocates and pundits analyzing whether a candidate should admit to such vices.

Reporters trailing Mr. Obama to Iowa last weekend made sure to note this comment by the presidential hopeful: “I’ve been chewing Nicorette all day long.”

An article on last month even speculated that should Mr. Obama quit, he would lose his trademark deep voice — identified by the Web site as “authoritative but comforting, rich and resonant and wise.”

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