It's like a slow burn.
Covering the Congressional supercommittee hasn't exactly been an electrifying assignment on Capitol Hill. It could get there. Especially as the November 23 deadline for the panel to forge a deal to cut $1.2 trillion in spending approaches. That's to say nothing of the December 23 drop-dead date for both bodies of Congress to approve whatever the supercommittee concocts.
Holiday hijinx always makes for good copy in the halls of Congress.
But so far, this saga has been a flop.
Two-thumbs down. Wait for it to air on TNT. If the supercommittee were a Broadway show, it could qualify for a critical reception worthy of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."
Unearthing $1.2 trillion in cuts may be a high-wire act to rival the stunts in Spider-Man. But no one has plunged to the stage yet. And the stories emanating from the supercommittee have mostly been ho-hum.
I had a feeling we were in for it in late August when all six supercommittee Republicans convened for the first time in the Cannon House Office Building. The supercommittee members walked briskly into a suite of offices controlled by supercommittee co-chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX). They barely uttered a peep. Reporters peppered them with detailed questions about what cuts would mean for farm subsidies or if auctioning off portions of the electromagnetic spectrum for telecommunications could generate new revenue.
And each supercommittee member avoided any hint of specificity in their responses.
They talked about how they were "hopeful" or were "looking forward" to the meetings.
And then they met again and again behind closed doors, each session generating little news.
"Are we really going to stand outside every single one of these meetings between now and December?" I mused to my fellow scribes after one lengthy stakeout which yielded no information.
Sure enough, we did.
For a while, it was even a challenge to determine when and where the supercommittee members were meeting.
In early September, the entire supercommittee convened a couple of sessions across the street from the Capitol at the Library of Congress's Jefferson Building. Reporters dutifully camped outside, amid the ornate statues and portraiture. They scored the same platitudes when the meeting adjourned.
And they met there again the next day.
It soon became clear to me that it wasn't worth my time to burn hours loitering at the Library of Congress with little return on the investment. So I started thinking strategically.
While the supercommittee members met, I learned that the Senate scheduled a vote at 5:30 pm. That meant the meeting would end just before the vote so the six senators on the panel could head back across the street to the Capitol to vote.
Still, I tried to minimize my time commitment even more. I didn't even head over to the stakeout until I observed an aide for Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) drive the senator's car over from the Capitol to the Library of Congress. That was a signal that the meeting was approaching adjournment.
For the past several weeks, all 12 members of the supercommittee haven't even been getting together at all. Some members have resorted to huddling in small groups.
On Tuesday night, I spied Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) wandering the third floor of the Capitol, asking how to get to S-338. The "S" means the room is on the Senate side of the Capitol. The "3" in "338" means it's on the third floor.
I had never heard of S-338 and quickly considered where it might be. After a bit of sleuthing, I determined S-338 was on the side of the Capitol overlooking the National Mall.
A few senators have their hideaway offices in this area. The hidden staircase that starts the ascent to the top of the Capitol Dome is near here. The Secretary of the Senate for the Minority is located up here. And then, there's the office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) along with some rooms controlled by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
This particular third-floor hallway on the Senate side...suddenly runs into the House side of the Capitol. And the "S" designations of rooms above the doors turn to "H's."
Baucus was coming to chat in the hideaway office of supercommittee member Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).
I never saw Kerry. But a couple of Van Hollen's aides waited patiently outside on a couch, leafing through gigantic folders and binders. An aide to Kerry slumped against the wall.
I cruised the hallway in hopes of catching one of the supercommittee Democrats once their session concluded. I finally talked to Van Hollen when the meeting broke. But it did little to advance the story.
In recent days, most supercommittee meetings have been along partisan lines.
John Kerry chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That panel boasts a gorgeous ceremonial office on the first floor of the Capitol which the committee often uses to greet foreign heads of state or other diplomatic dignitaries. Supercommittee Democrats have resorted to meeting here lately.
Jeb Hensarling chairs the House Republican Conference, the central organization leading all GOPers. So supercommittee Republicans have returned to this suite of offices in the Cannon Building for their meetings.
For reporters, this location is particularly vexing to even observe when the supercommittee members come or go, let alone ask them for a pithy comment about the negotiations.
The main entrance to the GOP Conference Suite is labeled as room 202A. However, there is an obscure, adjacent stairwell nearby which also features a side door to that parcel of offices.
The offices then wind around to the other side of Cannon and a similar stairwell with a backdoor. A landing in this second stairwell leads to non-descript door which opens into a conference room.
This room is where the GOP has conducted many of its supercommittee sessions lately. Meantime, reporters hang out across the building near the entrance to Cannon 202A. They never see anyone come or go. That's because most supercommittee GOPers have started slipping in and out through this back stairwell. In order to patrol all possible entrances, a single news organization might need four or five people to scout all the doorways. Even then, the supercommittee members remain mostly reticent.
But late Wednesday afternoon, reporters staking out the supercommittee scored a bit of a break.
Supercommittee member and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) elected to have his security detail drive him over to the House side of Capitol Hill rather than walk from the Senate to the Cannon Building. Reporters and photographers dashed from their stakeout to catch Kyl's arrival as he hopped out of a dark SUV and strode toward the back stairwell.
"You know I don't comment on what we are doing. But I appreciate your enthusiasm for information," said Kyl as he blew past the throng.
"Are you more pessimistic?" asked one reporter.
"I am not going to characterize my views right now," Kyl replied and ducked into the stairwell.
Reporters then moved their encampment from outside the primary entrance to the House GOP Conference suite to the opposite hallway. Reporters periodically tried to come and go through the back stairwell to monitor whether any supercommittee members were giving them the slip. But a plainclothes U.S. Capitol Police officer quickly put the kibosh on that. Since he's a member of Congressional leadership, Kyl gets a protective detail from the U.S. Capitol Police. And Kyl's detail officer essentially closed off this stairwell to press so they couldn't trace the movements of supercommittee members. Nonetheless, Congressional aides were allowed to continue to use the same set of stairs.
Reporters appealed to the officer and to the House Radio-TV Gallery. After all, journalists finally solved the mystery of how supercommittee members were coming and going without being detected. But the officer wouldn't budge in his position. The officer worried that reporters could eavesdrop in the stairwell and hear the conversations going on in the conference room.
When issues like this arise, the leadership of the U.S. Capitol Police has encouraged journalists to get the names or badge numbers of its officers in question. But on two occasions, this officer declined to provide the press with either.
In all of my years as a reporter, dating back to when I covered local crime when I was in college and graduate school, I have never had a law enforcement officer from any department refuse to identify him or herself.
A bit later, Mike Steel, a spokesman for John Boehner, arrived to chat up the reporters. They formed a small scrum around Steel and Ryan Patmintra, a spokesman for Kyl who now was also on the scene.
I immediately wondered if their appearance meant the meeting concluded and that supercommittee members were now escaping out the back door. Of course, that's the old "front" door on the other side of Cannon. I raced there to discover supercommittee member Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) departing.
"You don't want to go that way. Reporters are over there," coached an aide when Upton started in one direction, unaware of who lurked around the corner.
"All but one, I responded," a smile on my face.
I asked Upton a few questions as he walked to a nearby elevator. But the Congressman couldn't respond. His mouth was full. As Upton left the meeting, he grabbed a handful of bite-sized cracker sandwiches stuffed with peanut butter. The peanut butter stuck to the roof of Upton's mouth, limiting what he could say. The elevator door then closed.
Two hours burned wandering the hallways of Cannon and no news from the supercommittee.
But perhaps the supercommittee members won't have to rely on all of the cloak and dagger tactics to avoid interactions with the press.
Apparently, some crackers and a jar of Jif seems to do the trick just as well.