The Speaker's Lobby: Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!!!
By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
07 December 2009
Everyone who's been within earshot of a radio in the past quarter century knows Larry "Supermouth" Huffman.
You may not know him by name. But you'll recognize Huffman's voice when he spews his hyperbolic, gravelly, reverb-laden intonations promoting monster truck exhibitions. Usually at a nearby arena. And of course, on "Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!!!"
Congress rarely calls weekend sessions. And if it does, it's typically on a Saturday.
The House worked all day on a Saturday a few weeks ago to approve its version of the health care reform bill. The Senate voted to clear a major procedural hurdle just to launch debate on the health care reform package on the Saturday night before Thanksgiving. And the Senate met again this past Saturday to debate the health care reform bill.
But official word came late Friday that the Senate would be in session this Sunday. And there would be votes. And then came the announcement that President Obama would travel to Capitol Hill for a closed-door session with Senate Democrats.
All on Sunday.
Or, as Larry "Supermouth" Huffman would say it, on "Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!!!"
This is as exciting as it gets for a Sunday Senate session.
Monster trucks Big Foot, Grave Digger and the Raminator weren't on hand. But you can't beat the allure of the president of the United States, a vote on an amendment by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and a protracted, closed-door meeting about the public option.
You could almost imagine the flames shooting out of tailpipes and the trucks soaring into the air before crushing a line of Chevy sedans with their 66-inch Terra tires.
It frankly wasn't very exciting.
The Senate's not had a big Sunday session since December, 2005 when members sparred over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). And Republicans were quick to remind journalists that Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) denounced the GOP when it called a Sunday Senate session in October, 2004.
"Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy," Byrd read from the Bible on the floor during that Sunday session five years ago. "Six days shall work be done. But on the seventh day, there shall be to you a holy day. Whosoever doth work therein shall be put to death."
Talk about death panels.....
The Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol buzzed early Sunday afternoon. TV crews waited outside the Senate carriage entrance to grab video of senators arriving for the session. Plainclothes and uniformed U.S. Capitol Police officers roamed the halls, their radios crackled with info about street closures for the president's motorcade. Dozens of Senate Democrats ran a gauntlet of reporters to get to the room where the president would speak.
But once Mr. Obama arrived at the Capitol, he barely stayed more than a half hour. The president didn't address the media. He didn't try to carve a deal on the public option or abortion. The president just glided in and out.
"The message was the same," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM).
"It wasn't a negotiating session," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA). "It was a unifying message of staying together until we get this done. Not be distracted by distortions thrown by the other side."
That's anti-climactic. Especially for a Sunday Senate session.
In fact, Democrats were so focused on their session with the president that they temporarily gave the Senate keys to Republicans while they huddled with Mr. Obama across the corridor.
Some Republicans groused that the entire Sunday meeting was staged to give the nation the impression Democrats were toiling hard on the health care bill. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) even asked him why it was "fair" to Republicans to hold a Sunday Senate session just so Democrats could hear from President Obama.
Historically, a member of the majority party always presides over the House and Senate. While at the dais, that lawmaker is the ultimate authority over who controls the floor and parliamentary rulings. Which is why the majority party always fills the presiding officer slot with one of their own. But ceding control of the Senate chamber to the GOP enabled all Democrats to hear from President Obama.
"It's rarely done. I've never seen that happen before," Reid said of granting Republicans free-reign of the Senate.
McConnell wryly described Reid's blessing as "the first bipartisan moment on this bill."
Surrendering control of the Senate to the other side could prove perilous on such a flammable issue. After all, the Senate's basic stricture is "unanimous consent." In other words, any GOP senator could have conceivably done anything to the health care bill. And nobody would be there to stop the Republicans since all of the Democrats were in the other room hearing from President Obama.
"I trust implicitly McConnell (and Minority Whip Jon) Kyl," of Arizona, Reid said. And Republicans didn't pull any capers while the they minded the cash register.
Democrats may be lucky the Salahis didn't try to crash the Senate chamber while they were off meeting the president.
Late 1994 was the last time anyone could recall either the House or Senate permitted the minority party to take control of a chamber. During a lame-duck session, former House Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA) permitted then-retiring Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-IL) to wield the gavel over the final House debate of the year. Michel served in the House for nearly 40 years. But he never presided over the House once because Republicans were always in the minority. Foley, lost re-election that year. And in the interest of comity, the Speaker gave Michel one chance to preside before leaving Congress.
There may not have been drama in Sunday's session. But there was some action. If you knew where to look for it.
Far away from the television cameras, President Obama dispatched his health care reform go-team to caucus with a group of moderate and progressive Democrats in an out-of-the-way Senate room to try to forge a compromise on the government-run "public option."
Reporters staked out the hallway, waiting for some signal as to how the talks were going. The meeting finally broke up and a few senators trickled out. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Blanche Lincoln rushed past the scribes. Then Landrieu materialized and started speaking. Until Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) hollered to her.
"I thought we weren't going to say much to the press," Schumer said.
At that point, the New York Democrat took charge.
"We have had a really intense three hours of discussions. We're not there yet," he said.
Schumer then returned to the meeting room and shouted loudly to the remaining senators and staff.
"Folks, there's a bunch of reporters out here," Schumer warned.
Thus, Schumer essentially squelched any of his colleagues from talking much to the press. And by taking command of the situation, Schumer simultaneously assured himself the few, select quotes from the meeting in Monday's papers.
Early last week, Harry Reid prepared everyone for what to expect in the Senate this month.
"There is not an issue more important than finishing this legislation," Reid said. "The next weekends - plural - we will be working."
Everyone realizes the weight of this legislative lift. They understand how critical the issue is. Whether they support the bill or not. But this weekend, some on Capitol Hill lamented that they felt like they were cast in the cult movie classic Office Space. And the boss needed them "to go ahead and come in on Sunday, too."
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday. It's not official, but it's possible the Senate faces a month of Sunday sessions. It might not be as exciting as a monster truck demolition. But in the words of Larry "Supermouth" Huffman, everyone on Capitol Hill is sure to "Be there!!!!!!"
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's earned an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.
- The Speaker's Lobby refers to a long, ornate corridor that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.