The Speaker’s Lobby: On Call

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

17 June 2009


Surgeons are often on call. They never know when the emergency room is going to page them out of a weekend barbeque to rush to the hospital for an operation.


Coroners get called at home when there’s a fatal car crash. Pagers buzz on the belts of volunteer firefighters when there’s a blaze. And many an editor has summoned a reporter out of a baseball game or a happy hour when big news breaks.


Members of Congress are rarely on call.


But that wasn’t the case Tuesday night in the House of Representatives.


Most representatives made a beeline out of the Capitol around 6:30 pm Tuesday. Lawmakers had just approved an emergency war funding bill. And the leadership brass advertised that vote as the last one of the evening. But the House wasn’t done with it’s work. The plan was for members to start plowing through a slate of 127 amendments to the annual Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill. Some lawmakers would stick around to debate. But there would be no votes until Wednesday.


That all changed at 8:21 pm.


That’s when the House bells rang and Congressional aides pinged their bosses via BlackBerry messages ricocheting all over Washington. Lawmakers were instructed to hustle back to the House for an unexpected procedural vote.


No one was pleased. Especially not the scores of lawmakers who left Capitol Hill and had to return to vote.


We’ve all heard it’s unwise to disturb a bear in hibernation. I’ll take waking the bear over disturbing a Member of Congress who’s gone home for the night.


“Who’s bright idea was this?” asked an annoyed Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC) to no one in particular as he walked back inside the Capitol.


The “bright idea” was the brainchild of Shuler’s own party leadership. Democrats believed Republicans were taking advantage of them by chewing up too much time on amendments. So Democrats called for the vote to short-circuit the Republicans and design a new plan for handling the package on the House floor.   


House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) argued it took more than 20 minutes to consider one of the first amendments, offered by Rep. Aaron Shock (R-IL).


“If you multiply that by 127, you come up with a pretty high number,” Hoyer said, indicating Democrats were concerned they’d be here much of the night and still not complete the bill.


“What sticks with us, and not very well, is your decision to cut off debate on page two, line seven of the very first debate,” retorted House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA). “It is hard for us to accept that 30 minutes into the debate, that’s where you drew the line.”


Lawmakers of both parties found it hard to accept they were back voting in the House chamber.


“I was shopping at Safeway,” groused Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN). “I’ve got bars of ice cream melting in the car.”


“Obey got pissed. Is that the deal?” grumbled another Democrat, referring to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-WI).


Lawmakers returned in all styles of dress, pried away from their evening activities. Some still bore the standard coat and tie “uniform.” But most sported casual togs. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) appeared in flip-flops. Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) in blue jeans and red tennis shoes. Rep. That McCotter (R-MI) walked around in a Detroit Tigers ball cap, shorts and white tube socks. Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA) wore sandals. She rode her bike to the Capitol from her apartment. Rep. John Boccieri (D-OH) returned on the subway with his two daughters.


More than one lawmaker featured red cheeks and a whiff of alcohol on the breath, as though they had hit the bar.


Virginia Griffith, the wife of Rep. Parker Griffith (D-AL) waited in the hallway.


“We were at dinner,” said Mrs. Griffith. “He’s going to have a ham sandwich at home now.”


Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) was at her Chinatown apartment watching C-SPAN with her daughter, Annaliese Wiederspahn.


“I wanted to do something mindless,” Lummis said. So Annaliese turned on the Reese Witherspoon comedy “Sweet Home Alabama.” And that’s when Lummis received an email to return to Capitol Hill.


“You can’t get away,” Lummis sighed.


Finally at 9:01 pm, majority Democrats closed the vote. They consumed more than twice the time it usually takes to hold a vote as Democrats prevailed over Republicans, 179 to 124. But that’s only 303 members out of what is currently a 434 member House. That meant 131 members didn’t get the message. Or didn’t bother to come back.


“Fun and games,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).


But the fun and games were just beginning.


Almost immediately, Republicans tried to portray Democrats as fearful of three amendments in particular. Two, offered by Rep. Steve King (R-IA), would prevent ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) from scoring federal funds. A third, authored by Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), would launch a $2 million Justice Department probe of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and her allegations that the CIA lied to her. Meantime, Democrats countered that Republicans forced them to take extreme measures to yank the measure from the floor.


“If you take a look at this bill you can tell its getting out of hand,” fumed House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-WI) before a witching hour meeting of the House Rules Committee. “If we don’t deal with it, there will be 200 or 250 (amendments). There are only so many hours in the week.”


“This precedent is a very, very dangerous one,” warned Rep. David Dreier (R-CA), the leading GOPer on the Rules panel. “I wonder if there isn’t more freedom on the streets of Tehran right now.”


Dreier and Obey sparred verbally across the dais in the tiny Rules Committee room, often stepping all over one another. Finally, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) begged the twosome to take turns “so there can be an accurate record.”


“Thank you gentleman,” chastened Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY). “You may proceed one at a time.”


“Thank you for shutting us up, Mr. Hastings,” sneered Dreier.


So House members take a mulligan and wrestle again with the Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill Wednesday. That won’t make the bill any less contentious. But at least this time they won’t have to call away lawmakers from meals, grocery runs and reruns of “Sweet Home Alabama” to finish the people’s business.


– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill. The Speaker’s Lobby is a long, ornate hallway behind the House chamber where lawmakers, journalists and aides often congregate during votes.