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As House gets its first female speaker, `potty parity' is revisited

WASHINGTON—When nature calls during a debate or vote in the House of Representatives, what's a member of Congress to do?

The answer, even as the first female speaker of the House prepares to be sworn in next month, depends on gender.

The members-only House men's room, with its shoeshine stand, fireplace and television tuned to floor proceedings, is nestled a few paces from the House chamber, beside the speaker's lounge, flanked by Capitol police. How convenient.

Reaching the women's equivalent is more challenging. It entails traversing a hall where tourists gather, or entering the minority leader's office, navigating a corridor that winds past secretarial desks and punching in a keypad code to ensure restricted access. Not so convenient.

So when Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., takes the gavel, she may revisit, along with the Iraq war and raising the minimum wage, the question of potty parity.

Starting in January, the 435-member House will have a record 71 women. (The 100-member Senate will have 16 women, also a record.)

Asked whether female House members should also get a loo off the chamber, Pelosi said, "I'm all for it—let's find a spot." Mischievously, she said she's eyeing the men's room just steps from the chamber, "but the gentlemen, they just won't get out of there."

There are arguably more pressing matters for Congress when it returns to a pivotal wartime session and Democratic control for the first time in a dozen years.

"We've got a lot of other problems ahead of this, starting with the minimum wage, health care, education," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who'll be vice chairwoman of the Joint Economic Committee.

But the very mention of restroom access is a reminder of the institution's male-dominated legacy, and it stirs lingering sensitivities.

At least one incoming female freshman representative may take up the cause.

Rep.-elect Yvette Clarke, a Democratic New York City councilwoman, was lead sponsor of that city's Women's Restroom Equity Bill, signed into law in 2005. It requires a 2-to-1 ratio for women's bathrooms to men's in new construction and major building renovations.

Clarke said she wouldn't try to impose such mandates on historic structures like the Capitol. But she thinks women should have at least one toilet off the House chamber, rather than having to run down the hall.

"When we're talking about restroom equity, we're talking about the time it takes each of us to handle our business and get back to business. If the men's were shut down, there would be an outcry because of what has become a tradition of accessibility."

Even so, several female House members said they can live with the longer walk—particularly because the restroom suite, where the congressional women's caucus began meeting in 1977, is posh: It has a fireplace, chandelier, lounge and meeting room with early American furniture.

The suite has a rich history. It was once the speaker's room, and Rep. John Quincy Adams, a former president, died there in 1848 after a stroke.

In 1990, it was officially named the Lindy Boggs Congressional Women's Reading Room, honoring the Louisiana lawmaker who was elected in 1973 to replace her late husband and who retired in 1990 to care for a dying daughter. The Boggs designation helped stave off a rumored interest by male leaders in taking the lounge space for their use.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said women "are adaptable; it's a balancing act." She paces herself when she knows she'll be on the House floor for long stretches. In case of emergency, she said, "I'm a runner."

Congressmen are more defensive.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who'll be chairman of the Financial Services Committee, said women "are better integrated into the real decision-making" now in Congress "than in any institution in America."

How to add a bathroom closer to the chamber "is really beneath discussion," Frank said. "Is this your idea of a serious story? Because if it is, we're not going to have a lot to talk about."

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who'll relinquish the majority leader's post for minority leader, waved off an interview, saying, "I don't know where the women's bathroom is!"

He likely won't have that problem once he realizes the favored route is through his new office.

Some congressmen were more sympathetic.

Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., said that perhaps Pelosi could partition the men's restroom to make room for women.

That's what happened with the members-only restroom off the Senate chamber after the 1992 elections, when female representation shot from two to seven, said Senate associate historian Donald A. Ritchie. Previously, female senators went up one floor or to their offices, or used public restrooms, as House women previously did.

What if Pelosi pushed to swap the men's room for the women's?

"She'd be exercising a certain amount of ruthlessness," Hastings said, but he predicted that his colleagues "would take it like men."

If Pelosi did push for a women's restroom closer to the chamber, options are limited. The most obvious would be to take a chunk from the House parliamentarian's suite. That might prove unpopular, given his critical role in advising on what legislative tactics are acceptable.

"I've not been there long enough to tread on that water," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. "I may need the parliamentarian at some point."

Pat Schroeder, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers and a Colorado congresswoman from 1973-97, said the women's congressional bathroom may be too special to trade for a closer location.

Besides, she said, women's ability to hang onto that suite over three decades despite constant space jockeying by leaders may be a testament to how far women in Congress have come.

For example, Schroeder famously won a spot on the coveted House Armed Services Committee upon her election, only to face the humiliation, along with California Democrat Ron Dellums, an African-American, of being told they'd have to share a chair.

The committee's chairman, F. Edward Hebert, D-La., explained that, to his thinking, women and blacks were worth half of one "regular" member. Hebert lost his chairmanship two years later in a revolt by younger Democrats.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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