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Work getting done on Senate floor — literally

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Finally some work is happening on the Senate floor, only in this case it's literal work, not the legislative kind that's been sorely missing in recent months.

With senators on a five-week summer vacation, the ornate chamber is undergoing a major restoration — one of a number of beautification projects across the federal city right now — that has the chamber torn down and its wood slat floor exposed.

For most of those other projects, such as the Mall or Union Station, the work is at most an eyesore for tourists. But in the Senate, the restoration has left lawmakers homeless, and on Tuesday, that nearly caused them to have to hold a session outside their chamber for just the second time since the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812.

In the end, that special session was averted — but only because the House on Tuesday mercifully reversed a vote last week and instead decided to take the entire summer off, which in turn gave the Senate the summer off, too.

The news came minutes before the Senate was slated to convene in a 1970s-era hearing room, revamped just to accommodate this summer's special sessions, in an office building across the street from the Capitol.

"All dressed up, nowhere to go, huh?" one Senate floor staffer called out to his colleagues after the last-minute reprieve, which means a longer vacation for many of the doorkeepers and others who help operate the chamber when it is in session.

Aides joked about the lack of work — but said it's nothing new for a chamber that is in the midst of its second-worst year on record in the latest version of The Washington Times' legislative futility index.

Indeed, the Senate's daily calendar of business, printed for Tuesday's session, ran to 80 pages and includes hundreds of bills awaiting action.

But the chamber itself, glimpsed through gaps in the closed doors, was barren Tuesday. All 100 senators' desks have been removed, the carpeting has been torn up and the wood exposed.

Staffers said the flooring was being reinforced after taking a beating for more than 150 years by the footfalls of legislative giants.

The repairs will take the full five weeks that the Senate is slated to be away, and the work was scheduled well in advance — which is why senators found themselves in a bind after the House refused to adjourn for the summer.

Under a provision of the Constitution, one chamber cannot go out without the other also leaving.

House Republican leaders wanted to adjourn, but a coalition of Democrats and conservative Republicans teamed together to defeat that motion Thursday.

Democrats said they wanted to keep the chamber in session in order to work on jobs bills.

But, realizing that no work was going to get done and figuring they had made their point, Democrats relented Tuesday.

"Republicans have made it clear that they do not intend to come back to town. We decided not to waste taxpayer money on pro forma sessions when Republicans have already made their choice not to stand up for the middle class," a Democratic aide said.

With only one lawmaker, Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican, in the chamber, the House passed its motion to adjourn and notified the Senate. Under an earlier agreement, that meant the Senate didn't even have to meet to ratify the motion.

The Senate had been prepared for a full session, to be held in a big room in the Hart Senate Office Building.

A police screening station, complete with a metal detector, was set up just in case any members of the public wanted to show up — though none had as of just minutes before the session.

The Senate has met outside its chamber once since the Capitol was reconstructed after the War of 1812: last summer, when an earthquake forced the Capitol to be evacuated just before a similar pro forma session.

In that case, the Senate convened in a nearby government office building.

Pro forma sessions have become contentious this Congress, with Republicans using them to prevent President Obama from making recess appointments. House Republicans came into session every three days, which under a provision of the Constitution meant the Senate also had to hold sessions — and as long as the Senate was in, Mr. Obama's recess powers were in check.

But earlier this year, the president, ignoring decades of tradition, used his powers even though the chambers were meeting every three days.

A Senate aide said Mr. Obama agreed not to make any recess appointments this summer, heading off another constitutional flare-up.

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