The Speaker’s Lobby: Nocturnes

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

21 December 2009

The U.S. Capitol evolves into a downright different place late at night. The commotion of lawmakers, aides, lobbyists and journalists subsides. The loud voices and echoes of brisk, important-sounding steps melts into the historic marble. For all of the bustle that electrifies the Capitol during the day, the building dissolves into a stark, behemoth at night. Vast. Vacant. Forgotten. Kind of like an amusement park in winter. After hours, the sheer enormity of the Capitol stands in stark contrast to the skeleton crew of police officers and custodial staff.

At night, cleaning crews wheel gigantic, plastic bins around the halls, collecting trash. The doors leading to the House and Senate chambers are swung wide open as workers tidy up inside. The steady hum of a vacuum wafts out into the corridor. In the Capitol Rotunda, a solitary figure pushes a giant floor waxer in a circular, labyrinthine pattern. Each circuit is smaller than the last as he buffs the floor of the most famous room in America.

That’s the Capitol at night.

But pandemonium pierced the Capitol’s nocturnal solitude Sunday.

An historic December storm sealed the Capitol in snow over the weekend. But the Senate wing bustled late Sunday night and early Monday morning. The fragrance of wood burning in a fireplace drifted through the hallway adjoining the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Senate staffers spoke on cell phones and studied BlackBerries. And senators milled about as they prepared to take their biggest vote to date on the health care reform bill.

It was simply a procedural vote, scheduled for 1 am. The Democrats needed 60 votes to halt a Republican filibuster. But in a post-witching hour roll call vote, Democrats could show Republicans they had captured the support of 60 senators for their legislation. The GOP could continue to hew and cry about the deficiencies of the health care measure. But securing a supermajority of 60 votes meant Democrats could block the Republicans at any turn and put the bill on a glide path to passage on Christmas Eve.

The Senate recessed at 11:31 pm Sunday night. It was only a half-hour respite, with the body returning to action Monday when the clock struck 12:01 am. Monday would be the Senate’s 22nd consecutive day in session. Some speculated that at this rate, the Senate was chasing Cal Ripken’s record. Senators had trudged through a blizzard at 6:45 am for an extraordinary vote Saturday. And now lawmakers were back for a 1 am vote Monday.

Perhaps it was only appropriate that the Senate was voting in the dead of night on the shortest day of the year.

Republicans were more than happy to grouse about the Senate schedule. On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said it was “outrageous in a snowstorm” to vote at such an odd hour.

“There’s a reason we are voting on it in the dead of night,” Alexander said, suggesting Democrats were trying to hide bad elements of their health care bill from the public.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) turned the tables on Alexander during the same broadcast.

“There’s only one reason we’re going to be here until Christmas, and that’s Senator Tom Coburn,” Landrieu said of the Oklahoma Republican. “We don’t have to vote in the middle of the night. But he’s the one making us do it. Not (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid. Not the Democrats. It is a Republican obstructionist that is making us vote in the middle of the night.”

Both Democrats and Republicans are culpable for the Senate’s post-witching hour voting schedule.

Democrats are determined to approve a bill by year’s end. Republicans are determined to stop it. Democrats bear responsibility because of the year-end deadline. Republicans bear responsibility because they’ve thrown up every parliamentary blockade available to stymie the process.

Take Monday morning’s vote on a big amendment to the health care bill. Once Democrats “invoked cloture,” or cut off debate, a clock started running. Republicans could still debate that amendment for 30 hours. Only then can there be a final vote on the actual amendment. So Harry Reid set up a parliamentary adagio of votes, followed by 30 hours of debate time to run the course of the week. In an effort to maximize time, Reid’s scheduled those votes as quickly as the 30 hour sequences expire, often just before sunrise or as was the case Monday, 1 am. That wedges the final vote on health care right up against Christmas. Republicans are forcing Reid’s hand. And if he wants to finish a bill before the holiday, the dawn and post-midnight votes are the only pathway out of this legislative catacomb.

The Senate has only met on Christmas Eve twice in the history of the republic. The most recent occasion was 1963. 1895 was the only time prior to that. The Senate only met on Christmas Day once, in 1797.

So late Sunday afternoon, Republicans were out of options to stop the Democrats. And with the 1 am Monday vote just hours away, Tom Coburn asked for divine intervention.

“What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can’t make the vote tonight,” Coburn said during a Senate floor speech.

Coburn wasn’t specific about what barrier he hoped would keep Democratic senators away. A slip on the ice. A dead battery. Stuck in a snow drift. Or worse. But Coburn’s theistic plea drew the ire of Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL).

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to be invoking prayer to wish misfortune on a colleague,” Durbin said.

Harry Reid’s spokesman Jim Manley called Coburn’s comment “repulsive.”

By evening, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) cited the ailing 92-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV). Harkin argued  it wasn’t right to “drag him out of bed and bring him down here for this vote.” Harkin tried to convince Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) to relent and reschedule the vote at the respectable hour of 9 am Monday. So long as the Senate could burn some time off the clock in the overnight. But Enzi wouldn’t back down.

“We want the time,” the Wyoming Republican told his Iowa colleague. “We know that the Democrats have kept people from going home now for three weeks so they wouldn’t have to listen to the voters at home.”

“There they go again,” Harkin huffed. “They want to delay, delay, delay. They want to delay it. They would be happy to delay this to Christmas, New Year’s and January and February.”

And so the vote was locked in at 1 am.

Senators began filing into the Capitol around midnight. And Columbia WinterTrek boots with cross-laces were de rigueur for senators as they trudged in from the snow.

“Good morning,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) as she entered the building and boarded an elevator at 12:31 am.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) sported a parka with a furry hood. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) arrived in a ski jacket. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), the final Democrat to commit to the bill, wore nothing but a suit.

“Someone drove me,” Nelson said.

A line of news photographers and reporters lined a hallway near the Senate elevator banks, awaiting senators. Senators walked past them and into the chamber.

“Good morning, y’all,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). “We’ve got to stop hanging around like this.”

“Gentlemen. Hello. Again,” greeted Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), heading into the late-night vote as though it was some sort of hazing ritual.

With the round-robin votes and strange weekend sessions, Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) noted that the past week was the longest he had ever been apart from his wife Janet in 47 years of marriage.

The vote started around 1:05 am. Due to the importance of the issue, Harry Reid requested that senators vote from their desks. The senators sat at their mahogany desks as though in school as the clerk began to call the roll in alphabetical order. A few senators arrived late. Sens. Roland Burris (D-IL) and Jim Bunning (R-KY) entered once the vote was underway. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) hurriedly got up from her desk in the middle of the roll call and ran into the cloakroom, apparently for a tissue. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) slid into his desk, just as the clerk announced his name. Diane Feinstein leaned over from her desk in the back row to rib Kerry about his tardiness.

Senators voted in all fashions as their names were called. Some, barely moved and hollered “yea” or “nay” without standing. Others, like Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) half-stood, gripping both sides of the desk as they responded. Others, like Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) rose from their chairs, stood fully upright and announced their vote before being seated again.

And around 1:20 am, Democrats cut off the Republican filibuster with a 60-40 vote.

“It’s a total vindication of the Reid strategy,” boasted Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) of the majority leader’s ability to find precisely the votes he needed to stop the Republicans.

And much like Coburn’s beseech, Schumer indicated that Democrats employed ecclesiastical tactics, too.

“The appeal to the higher angels worked,” Schumer said.

Once the vote finished, senators filtered out to the cavalcade of warmed-up cars awaiting them on the Capitol plaza. The clock was pushing two am. And now the Senate had met not only throughout the weekend, but in the wee-hours of Monday morning.

President Obama’s top health care aide Nancy-Ann DeParle apparently didn’t visit the Capitol Sunday. But did drop in for the 1 am vote Monday.

“This is the first day in a month I haven’t been here on a Sunday,” DeParle was overheard saying.

Soon the Senate recessed. Someone lowered the lights in the chamber and the din subsided. By 2:30 am, the building was nearly dormant. And there was little trace that all 100 senators had even been there. Or had cast such a monumental vote.

The Capitol returned to its nocturnal hibernation. And soon, all that could be heard was the low hum of a vacuum cleaner in the Senate chamber.

– 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 refers to a long, ornate corridor that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.