Cars packed the East Front of the Capitol Saturday, as senators returned for a surprise weekend session. Even as the first vote of the day was underway, lawmakers were still making their way back to the Senate.
A deal to avert the weekend session was so far along that a number of senators in both parties had already left the Capitol by Friday night. New Hampshire Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen, for instance, were already en route to Manchester when Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sparred on the floor Friday night.
Shaheen said several other senators were in the air as plans for the unexpected Saturday vote-a-rama became clear.
"All of us have our inconveniences right?" Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said. "My dad is a 80-year-old Army vet from Kansas City and I had him come out to go to the Army-Navy game with me today. Now he's there with my chief of staff instead of me." But, Kaine said the fluid schedule comes with the territory.
"You understand when you get into it that you don't determine the schedule," he said.
Only one subway car, instead of the usual two, ran Saturday between the Capitol and the Russell Senate Office Building.
Capitol Police were on duty as usual, with additional staff on hand to respond to the Justice for All March against police violence, which culminated just outside the Capitol grounds. The cheers and speeches from the rally at Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue were heard from the Hill.
Other Senate support offices were operating with skeleton-crews of staff, according to the Office of the Secretary of the Senate. But staffers who work on the Senate floor, including clerks and parliamentarians, knew they would have to report to work. Other staffers with legislative and floor responsibilities who work under the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms were also called in on the weekend.
"Anytime the Senate is in session, the Sergeant at Arms is prepared to provide services to the Senate community and provide access to the public galleries," a SSA aide wrote.
The workers who monitor the public galleries certainly had their hands full. Scores of tourists visiting the Capitol were able to sit in the gallery and watch the Senate in action. That is usually not an option for weekend tourists, because the gallery is closed when Congress is not in session. Lines to get into the gallery stretched down the hallway, an unusual sight for a normal workday.
A young man named Gerald visiting the Capitol from Miami, did not know the Senate was in session when he arrived for a tour Saturday morning. After the tour was completed, his group was told they could go up to the gallery. He was eager to see the Senate at work and ended up sitting there for more than an hour and a half.
"It was a pleasant surprise to be able to see it in action today," Gerald said.
Even though the weekend session came as a surprise to lawmakers, staff and tourists, Capitol staff began preparing for the possibility on Friday evening. The Senate Rules and Administration Committee sent an email to staff explaining there would be limited dining services over the weekend if the Senate was in session.
The only dining option Saturday was the Senate Carry-Out in the basement. The small dining area saw a steady stream of customers throughout the afternoon.
A number of senators were spotted getting their lunches from the basement carry-out, including Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, who had his family with him. As the children waited for their food and sipped chocolate milk, the Connecticut Democrat explained to them that as a House member, he can vote by pushing buttons on an electronic device, while the Senate has no such method.
But the carry-out wasn't for everyone. Fast-food from Chick-fil-A was spotted heading into the Republican Cloakroom. Sen. Brian Schatz said his assistants brought him a sandwich, though that was the only task for the Hawaii Democrat's staff on Saturday. Schatz told them not to come into work, but to keep their eyes on their smartphones. He was not disheartened about working on the weekend.
"It's a pleasure — we're getting work done," Schatz said, noting that Republican moves late Friday gave Democrats more time to vote on nominations . "So it seems like some folks on the other side of the aisle may have made a tactical miscalculation and we're pleased to take advantage of it and get as much work done as we can on the final days of the Congress."
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