For Rep. Gregg Harper, the surreal nature of Friday’s shutdown countdown was encapsulated by wardrobe options.
The Mississippi Republican began the day with a staffer offering to order him a canary red blazer, the staple of a Capitol tour guide’s uniform, since only Members could accompany visitors if Capitol tour guides were furloughed during a shutdown.
“He said, ‘Hey, what size should I get you?’” Harper joked.
The Congressman ended the night decked out in a black tuxedo that he had no time to change out of in between attending the Cherry Blossom Festival Grand Ball and the GOP Conference meeting where rank-and-file lawmakers would sign off on the deal averting a shutdown.
As shutdown angst reigned across Capitol Hill on Friday, Congressional leaders worked behind closed doors while staffers and support employees, resigned to the fact that they had absolutely no role in averting a shutdown, consoled themselves with furlough humor.
Notwithstanding the looming threat of losing pay and the dejection of being deemed nonessential, as clocks ticked toward the midnight deadline, work life went on as normally as possible.
By noon, Members had started informing staff who would report to work in a shutdown.
“Deemed essential, the whole office,” one Democratic scheduler bragged.
A staff assistant in another office was changing the voice mail message to notify constituents that the office would remain open, government shutdown be damned.
Others weren’t so lucky. Nearly everyone in Sen. Ben Nelson’s office would have been sent home, said the Nebraska Democrat’s spokesman, Jake Thompson.
“People will have to come in Monday morning to put furlough away messages on their voice mails,” Thompson said Friday. “But for the most part Sen. Nelson’s offices will be closed.”
Hoping that a deal would have been struck by quitting time on Friday, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick waited until the end of the day to tell half his staff on a conference call that they would be furloughed.
“That’s a difficult conversation to have with staffers, but we had it,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.
By early evening, the last batch of tourists looked on as Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) spit fiery partisan rhetoric condemning his GOP colleagues to reporters outside Statuary Hall.
Dave Wilkins of Annapolis, Md., had his tour planned for weeks and felt lucky that he and his five children could get in before the threat of a shutdown could be realized. “We’re happy we were able to be here today,” Wilkins said.
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