A Smoking Tradition Snuffed Out By Pelosi

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007

Some fresh air blew into the Capitol yesterday, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi banned smoking from the most venerable nicotine haven on the hill -- the Speaker's Lobby outside the entrance to the House floor.

Pelosi, of smoke-free California, is known to detest the tobacco habit. Ever since her ascension as top Democrat with authority over the lobby and most other space in the House, smokers have been bracing for the moment when they'd be ordered to extinguish their butts.

One of the heaviest smokers, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who is partial to Barclays, was resigned to the new reality yesterday. As majority leader in the last Congress, Boehner ignored calls to ban smoking from the Speaker's Lobby. But now, as minority leader, he has little choice but to abide by Pelosi's wishes and told reporters he was fine with the ban.

For generations, the Speaker's Lobby has been the most visible space where smokers gather inside the Capitol. It is an ornate space dotted with fireplaces, leather armchairs and chandeliers. Lawmakers relax there between votes and debates, often meeting with staff members, reporters or the public and huddling in informal groups. Cigarette smokers tended to dominate the daytime hours there; at night, the cigar smokers took over.

Pelosi said she was banning smoking from the area to protect the health of the staff, reporters and public who spend time in the lobby. "Medical science has unquestionably established the dangerous effects of secondhand smoke, including an increased risk of cancer and respiratory diseases. I am a firm believer that Congress should lead by example," Pelosi said in a statement. "The days of smoke-filled rooms in the United States Capitol are over."

Not quite.

Smoking is still permitted in lawmakers' offices, in two designated smoking rooms in the House office buildings and in a small, concrete room in the Capitol's basement.

And Pelosi's ban took effect a week after the District prohibited smoking from most public spaces, including restaurants and bars.

Yesterday afternoon, two Senate staffers and two Capitol Police officers puffed away inside their basement hideaway, a cramped, room stuck amid maintenance closets and stacks of bottled water. A ceiling-mounted ventilation box drew up their fumes as they ate lunch, smoked Marlboros and worked Sudoku puzzles. "What are you going to do?" one of the staffers shrugged as she considered the dwindling number of places she can smoke. She asked not to be identified, saying it would anger her boss.

Paul Billings of the American Lung Association said that smoking room and others ought to be eliminated, too. "This is a first step, we want to extend smoke-free to all workplaces in the congressional complex," said Billings, whose organization has collected 9,000 signatures on a petition asking Congress to ban all smoking on Capitol Hill.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company