As House and Senate leadership scrambled to reach agreements on legislation to address the Veterans Affairs backlog, reauthorizing transportation programs and the influx of Central Americans at the Southern border before they adjourned for recess, Barbara Halpern-Levin, wife of Sen. Carl Levin, paused calmly in the middle of the Capitol Crypt.
The Michigan Democrat's wife was giving a tour of the Capitol to a relative visiting from Florida, and she provided a serene contrast to Wednesday's back-door buzz. In a brief interview with CQ Roll Call, the senator’s wife said she would need to check her schedule before deciding whether to take the visiting relative to watch either chambers’ final votes.
Lawmakers noted the relatively calm atmosphere around the Hill, even as the House prepared to debate a resolution authorizing the chamber to sue President Barack Obama. “I think there’s really low expectations for what’s going to get done between now and tomorrow,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday. “And I think there’s an optimism that we’ll be able to figure out the VA bill and the transportation bill. So I think there’s a lower level of angst than you normally have on the 48-hour period before August recess.”
For the scores of tourists milling around the Capitol, the calm atmosphere was difficult to ignore.
“It just seems kind of dead to me,” William Leary Jr., of Murfreesboro, N.C., said.
Fellow tourist Cheryl Johnson of Birmingham, Ala., echoed Leary. “There doesn’t seem any urgency or anything. So it’s really laid back,” Johnson said.
The galleries around both the House and Senate chamber remained quiet throughout the day. Around 2:25 p.m., as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii., spoke on the floor, a middle-school-aged child dozed off in the gallery.
Aside from several floor votes and speeches, lawmakers also hosted a few news conferences on subjects ranging from the transportation bill to Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Earlier in the day, Republicans stood outside the Capitol for a “War on Coal” event, which featured Jimmy Rose from "America’s Got Talent," who performed his song, “Coal Keeps the Lights On .”
“They went plumb down crazy in Washington,” sang Rose, as the hallways inside the Capitol remained calm and quiet.
But as one veteran reporter noted, the Capitol was just in the eye of the hurricane. Behind the scenes, lawmakers were working to put together a plan to get everything done before leaving town. The question of the day was, “What’s going to happen next?" The Senate television sets detailing the day’s schedule showed an uncertain timeline. Following a series of votes in the morning, the note on the screen read, “Senators will be notified when additional votes are scheduled,” for the rest of the day.
Reporters roamed the halls of the Senate, questioning the occasional lawmaker about what was likely to happen next. Three reporters huddled on a stairwell trading theories about what measures would be combined or separated.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said it was "hard to say" how the wrangling on the bill to provide emergency funding for the border crisis would play out. "We're always ready," for a potential barrage of amendment demands, Durbin said. "You know, toward the end of session, kitchen sinks are regular appliances."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told CQ Roll Call that lawmakers were scrambling behind the scenes to figure out their next moves. “Today everybody is sort of jockeying for position,” McCain said, adding, “I think you’re going to see a lot of fireworks in the next 48 hours.”
Capitol Hill staff, meanwhile, braced for how the recess will affect their work. One staff member at the House carryout told CQ Roll Call she finds recess to be boring and unpleasant. "It's slower. I'm not excited about it,” she said. “We don't have anyone here except for our regulars.”
A Hill maintenance worker said he’s similarly dreading the recess because of the extra work it creates. “We get more work to do. … I don’t prefer it at all,” he said.
One Capitol Police officer said recess wouldn’t bring a significant change to her work. “It doesn’t really affect us,” she said.
And though the number of issues to address is long, the odds are still in favor of lawmakers heading out of town this weekend.
Some top lawmakers have already made weekend plans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is scheduled to appear at Kentucky’s Fancy Farm Picnic, the Bluegrass State's blue-chip political event.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report .