- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 24, 2009

Yes, they’ve been in session every day for a month. They’re sick of Christmas cookies and each other. But don’t feel badly for the senators stuck working overtime. They’re dining on catered food in gilded suites and cloakrooms. They’re recording video tributes and poetry. And they’re outta here earlier Christmas Eve morning than had been anticipated.

Also, they have jobs, unlike 10 percent of workers this holiday season.

All of that can be said of their staffs, too. But extended sessions like the Great Health Care Debate of 2009 can be tough on Senate aides, all but the most senior of whom make less than the lawmakers they serve. Most don’t get paid extra for the overtime. And except for those who were sick or getting married, they weren’t excused from what has seemed the past few days to be a single, snowy all-nighter.

Christmas shopping? Ha.

“The Senate gift shop has replaced the mall,” said Nick Simpson, spokesman for the Senate Republican Conference. “Autographed pictures of senators are the hot present this year.”

In reality, winter break is a tradition - and a perk - that dates back the several decades that Congress has met year-round. The longer sessions required several scheduled breaks so that families can make vacation plans.

“It is understood, however, that these breaks can be changed or canceled, depending on legislative business,” said Senate Historian Don Ritchie.

There’s no heavier lift than the massive health care overhaul, a rewrite of policy that could affect every American. So for the most part, senators and aides have publicly tried to keep cheerful attitudes even during post-midnight and predawn votes.

“It’s not a hardship,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, whose wife came to Washington, complete with a Christmas tree shipped from home, to celebrate what they could of the holiday.

Senators have reason to withhold complaints, more so the closer the clock ticks to the final Christmas Eve vote. It’ll be the first time the Senate has voted on that holiday since 1895, for a debate on matters of employment of former Confederate officers.

For all the reports of cold pizza and stale holiday treats, life in the Senate is pretty civilized for these lawmakers these days. A walk around the Capitol at lunchtime Wednesday revealed a buffet of barbecue from Red Hot & Blue laid out in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s suite just off the Senate floor. A trio of press aides were spotted hopping on an elevator, plates stacked high with ribs.

Just around the chamber in the Mansfield Room, Republicans gathered for a weekly lunch meeting over what looked like breaded chicken or fish, supplied by the Senate food service. Not there was Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, because he’s now a Democrat. Instead, Mr. Specter was seated one floor down in the senators’ private dining room, lunching with his chief of staff and a third person.

Staffers reported that both cloakrooms at various times have been stocked with candy and baskets of fruit.

And on Saturday night, when the snow-challenged capital city was crippled by one of the worst storms on record, many of those forced to stay in town found shelter at a Hyatt Regency hotel a few blocks away as the clock ran toward a 1 a.m. vote Monday.

That vote and several other procedures dispensed with, Nevada’s Mr. Reid announced on the floor that he would hold the final vote on the health care bill at 7 a.m. EST on Christmas Eve - 12 hours earlier than originally planned.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, let out a loud groan, which in turn inspired laughter in a chamber not accustomed to it lately.

Most though, can’t get out of town early enough.

“Frankly, I’m gonna just sit back and watch my rabbits eat my cactus” back home in Searchlight, Nev., Mr. Reid told reporters.

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