The earthquake Tuesday didn’t stop the Senate, which made political history after the temblor shook Washington and sent lawmakers scrambling to hold a pro forma session outside the Capitol for the first time in recent memory.
At 3:30 p.m. the Senate — complete with an official seal and a gavel — was transferred to a nondescript conference room in the basement of the Postal Square Building, less than half a mile from the Capitol and across the street from Union Station.
“The Senate will come to order,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons, a Delaware Democrat who had come down on the train to preside over the 22-second session and was exiting Union Station when the earthquake hit.
The clerk read a communication from Senate President Pro tem Daniel K. Inouye — hastily written by a staffer on a yellow legal pad — that designated Mr. Coons the presiding officer for the day, and then Mr. Coons gaveled the session closed, with no business being transacted.
“OK, that’s a wrap,” someone exclaimed at the end.
Even though the location was different, most of the rules and decorum of the Senate were maintained, or at least as much as possible, given the short time and new room.
“This is considered the Senate floor,” Rick Edwards, a member of the sergeant-at-arms staff, told the room beforehand. “We would ask that everyone respect the floor the same as if we were in the Capitol.”
The 22 seconds is standard for a pro forma session and required under the Constitution’s stricture that no chamber can adjourn for more than three days unless it has the approval of the other chamber. In this case, the House is meeting every three days to force the Senate to stay in session, thus denying the president the chance to make recess appointments.
The Senate had been slated to meet at 2:30, but at that time evacuated staffers were still milling about the park outside the Capitol while officials scrambled to hold a makeup session.
The secretary of the Senate’s office keeps a “fly-away kit” handy just for such situations, and it included manuals of procedure and an official Senate seal, which was pinned to the gray curtain in the conference room.
But other things had to be secured: The parliamentarian had to borrow a jacket to meet the requirements that all gentlemen wear coats on the chamber floor, and a gavel was retrieved from an office upstairs in the building. Mr. Coons read from a script handwritten on a loose-leaf piece of notebook paper.
The session was observed by several dozen staffers and a small gathering of the press.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the Senate already had been in session when the Capitol was evacuated, so lawmakers had to adjourn it once they were outside.
Tuesday’s pro forma session was one of a series the Senate is required to hold this summer so that it honors its constitutional obligations. The House decided to meet in pro forma session every few days, which means the Senate must also meet.
The House held its pro forma session at 10 a.m., several hours before the earthquake.
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