'I'm an opportunist': With all eyes on the Judiciary Committee, the office across the hall seeks to capitalize

Christal Hayes

WASHINGTON – Journalists and photographers lined the hall. For hours, they camped out, some sitting in folding chairs with long-lenses, lining up the perfect shot. Others manned large TV cameras or talked on their phones with editors and producers, relaying the latest. 

To the left, right and in front of Rep. Brian Babin's office in the Rayburn House Office Building on June 19, journalists waited, snacking on their lunches and blocking his door and the Texas flag that stands out front. 

But they all weren't there for the Texas Republican. They were there for the commotion across the hall from his office. 

For months, all eyes have been on the House Judiciary Committee: the host of a number of blockbuster congressional hearings involving investigations of President Donald Trump. Former FBI director James Comey appeared before the committee, so did Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen. If an impeachment inquiry against Trump were to move forward, it would start with the House Judiciary panel.

The latest player to come before the panel, White House aide Hope Hicks, drew the crowd outside Babin's office last week as the committee heard hours of testimony from her behind closed doors. But, from across the hall, Babin saw the teeming hallway as an opportunity — one that he hopes to employ as frequently as possible to draw attention to issues he's focused on.

Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, along with his wife Roxanne Babin stand with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, for a ceremonial swearing-in and photo-op during the opening session of the 115th Congress on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017.

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Outside his office, he set up a small, mahogany table. A framed photo of him with Trump sat on top, along with a stack of articles about the migrant crisis and Border Patrol agents falling ill. "Please take one," a sign read.

His office sent out a staffer to hand out copies of the article to the crowd of reporters. Babin himself even made his way through the crowd, stopping to chat with reporters and urging them to read the article and emphasize his bills in their coverage.

"I'm an opportunist. I'm a hunter, can you see up here on the wall?" he said, pointing to an array of stag and boar heads mounted on the wall of his office, along with a stuffed armadillo. "You know, you take the opportunity. If we've got the opportunity to talk to some people out here that are looking for a story, let's talk about the real story. It's not trying to impeach Donald Trump, it's not trying to impeach our attorney general, it's about solving problems." 

Rep. Brian Babin's office is across the hall from some of the House Judiciary Committee, which holds some of the most-watched congressional hearings. He's sought to capitalize off all the attention, explaining he's a hunter and you have to take your shots when you have them.

Babin, talking with USA TODAY in his office on Wednesday, said the crowd for Hicks was larger than others and noted that not all Judiciary Committee hearings are held across the hall. But, when they are, he said he plans to make his counter-effort, which he did for the first time during Hicks' hearing, a new "routine" with a simple message: "Hey, you're here to see the three-ring circus, we're here to be passing laws." 

Babin says while he can hear the commotion outside and is forced to weave between reporters to get to his office, he doesn't mind all the chaos because of what it affords. He's hoping that, perhaps, reporters might examine legislation he's introduced that would develop a task force to study, and aim to stop, targeted violence, specifically mass shootings. There is also a bill he co-sponsored this month that would get rid of gun-free zones.

Babin, in his third term in Congress, isn't a stranger to making headlines or fighting with Democrats to defend Trump. The former Air Force officer and dentist defended Trump during the 2016 campaign when Trump called Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton a "nasty woman" during a debate. Babin said Clinton was "saying some nasty things" and "sometimes a lady needs to be told when she's being nasty." Babin also wrote in a USA TODAY op-ed that Trump has made "unthinkable progress" when it came to establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Babin defends Trump: GOP congressman: 'Sometimes a lady needs to be told when she's being nasty'

Babin argues, like many Republicans, that Democrats are ignoring the crisis along the southern border, not providing needed funding or taking up legislation that aims to help halt the flow of migrants. Instead, he says, "we're spinning our wheels in the mud, the mud puddle of the anti-Trump movement." 

Journalists crowd outside of Rep. Brian Babin's office waiting for lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee, which was meeting with former White House aide Hope Hicks on Wednesday.

"I just think we're really squandering some valuable time," said Babin, who was sporting crocodile cowboy boots embroidered with red, white and blue thread and the logo of the House of Representatives.

He isn't alone in hoping to steer attention to other topics other than impeachment. 

 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has tried to steer attention away from the increasingly intense impeachment conversation, which so far nearly 80 Democrats are in favor of launching, according to USA TODAY's count. But still,  Pelosi has emphasized the number calling for impeachment is still small relative to the number of members in Congress.

Instead, many Democrats, including the speaker, have aimed to highlight legislation that passed through the House. In mid-June, about 140 House Democrats held events across the nation to talk about health care. They've held news conferences with large posters on gun legislation and climate change, Pelosi debuting one graveyard poster this month showing legislation the House has passed that hasn't been taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate. 

The legislative focus hasn't stopped speculation. At every opportunity, Pelosi has been asked about Trump and impeachment. After being questioned about the efforts and attacks from the president during a CNN interview recently, she said: "I'm done with him. I don't even want to talk about him."

In the meantime for Babin, it's wait-and-see as to whether his new shtick will work. 

"We're one-quarter of the way through the 116th Congress," he said, "and we're not doing anything."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'I'm an opportunist': With all eyes on the Judiciary Committee, the office across the hall seeks to capitalize