In the Wee, Small Hours of the Senate

Posted November 13, 2003 at 9:20am

It’s 5:54 a.m. and the Majority Leader really isn’t fully awake, but Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) still has enough Southern charm in him to give a reporter a tour of his office/bedroom.

All the ornate settings of the room are in their usual place, but right in front of the fireplace, where the former Republican leader, Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), used to situate his desk, Frist has placed a cot.

“That’s pretty comfortable there,” Frist says, sitting down on the bed from which he was able to grab 50 minutes of sleep early Thursday morning.

And, nobody tell his mother, but Frist still hasn’t made his bed.

His hair’s a mess, and he hasn’t shaved, but Frist boasts that he did at least have time to put on a new, pressed shirt.

Always a meticulous man, the former heart surgeon has come prepared, with a kit full of cleaning utensils he’ll be getting to later: a brush, saline solution for his contact lenses, shaving cream and other must-haves for an all-nighter.

With that, Frist is off, out the door because he’s running late for a 6 a.m. radio interview to be conducted in the Hart Senate Office Building.

Such is life when you’re the Majority Leader and you’re not even halfway through a marathon debate that is slated to go until at least midnight Thursday — and likely a whole lot longer.

At least Frist was able to grab a little shut-eye, unlike one of his top lieutenants, Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.).

Santorum was the point man for Republicans on the floor and just off the floor in the Mansfield Room, where the GOP Conference staff organized a series of all-night rallies with conservative activists.

After a 5:50 a.m. interview with one of his local papers, The Morning Call of Allentown, Santorum had to leave to make his 6:30 a.m. tennis match with Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.).

Food and coffee were aplenty, with tons of baked goods to go around in both the Democratic and Republican Whips’ offices. Frist’s staff even sent a tray full of cookies and brownies up to the press galleries, as well as a case of Rolling Rock beer, which the bleary-eyed journalists barely put a dent in.

Frist’s spokesman, Bob Stevenson, was caught early in the evening with a copy of the DVD “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” sticking out of his coat pocket, a little symbolic inspiration he hoped to have time to watch as the evening turned into night — and night into morning.

While the all-nighter might not have switched any votes on the four-and-counting filibusters, it provided a litany of moments that ranged from the arcane to the bizarre to the educational — a night of nonstop action for Senate aficionados. Here are just a few of the highlights:

  • 6:35 p.m. Wednesday: Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), desperately trying to get Frist to delay the judicial marathon by two hours to finish up another appropriations bill, praised Frist and noted he has “long admired the distinguished Senator from Tennessee.” Some people in the gallery, unaware of Byrd’s regular Senatorial courtesies, openly started laughing, prompting a stern rebuke from Byrd. “I don’t say that facetiously,” he snapped.
  • 6:40 p.m. Wednesday: After repeated objections from Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) to the Democrats displaying a chart that read 168-4 (the number of President Bush’s judges confirmed versus those held up by filibuster) while Frist spoke, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), occupying the chair as President Pro Tempore, finally ruled the Democrats must take the sign down.
  • It met the first two criteria for posting charts, Stevens informed the packed chamber, that it be no more than 36 inches by 48 inches and that there be only one sign displayed at a time. But since Schumer had yet to be called on, the sign was pulled down.

  • 11:45 p.m Wednesday: Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) declared that she was feeling “perky.” Then, an hour later, doing her best impersonation of the Senate’s leading chart fanatic, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), she zipped through five charts and one really long scroll of alleged Bush administration environmental rollbacks in a 15-minute oration: “I wish my colleagues would listen, but it’s OK — their minds are made up,” she said.
  • Midnight: Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), intentionally or not, took a shot at his conservative Democratic colleague, Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.), pointing to a chart of past cloture votes on Democratic judicial nominees during the Clinton administration and wondering aloud whether any Democrats had voted against cloture. “I don’t recall if Senator Miller was here then,” he said.
  • Always accused of being a camera hog, no Democrat has signed up for more speaking slots than Schumer, who is tentatively slated to speak six different times spread straight across the 30 hours or more of debate. By 6:45 a.m. Thursday, Schumer was back on the floor, defending the filibusters.

  • 1:38 a.m. Thursday: In front of a packed Mansfield Room, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) revved up a crowd of people backing the Home School Legal Defense Association, a new group in the judicial nomination battle front.
  • While the group does not appear to necessarily have a stake in the fight, its connection to the battle becomes clear when, in front of more than a dozen home-schooled teen-agers, Graham introduces “the world’s most famous home schooler, Rick Santorum.” (Santorum and his wife, Karen, home school their children).

  • 1:45 a.m. Thursday: Outside the Senate chamber, Shawn Metcalf — like most of America — had fallen asleep on a bench outside the Senate chamber, in the arms of his mother, Kelly Metcalf.
  • Shawn Metcalf is 8 months old.

    “He was awake earlier,” said Kelly Metcalf, who brought Shawn and her other son, a 10-year-old, up from Charlottesville, Va.

    The Metcalfs came to the Capitol in a 15-passenger van, part of a six-vehicle convoy that snaked its way up from parts of Virginia for the Senate’s all-night judicial marathon debate. Members of a conservative group called the Family Action Council International, Metcalf said that the debate was so important to family values that she, and hundreds of other fellow conservatives, felt the need to be on hand to witness the historic debate.

    “I think we’ll be here — till 4 or 5 a.m,” Metcalf said, adding that Shawn had not seen his last Senate debate firsthand. “Oh yes, probably not his last.”

  • 3:40 a.m. Thursday: As most of the action was on the Senate floor and in the Mansfield Room, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), a freshman who wanted to stay up all night and be on hand for the historic debate, wandered back over to the House chamber. With the doors wide open and only a couple of cleaning crew carts outside, Franks took several staffers and a couple of reporters into the chamber, where a boom box left by the crew was playing adult contemporary music from Magic 102.3.
  • “This is an unprecedented situation,” Franks said of the quartet of filibusters Senate Democrats have so far launched, with 102.3 filling the so-called lower chamber with an ad for the “Tom Joyner Show” — a program that was more than two hours from starting.

  • 7:35 a.m. Thursday: Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) informed the Senate that the windstorm Wednesday night knocked out his power, almost making him late for his turn on the floor. He had to “stumble” around in the dark in his home in order to get his bearings and make it to the Capitol.
  • 8:04 a.m.: Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who throughout his several hours on the floor in the early morning repeatedly quoted country music, finished up his criticism of the filibusters by paraphrasing “Rawhide.”
  • “Instead of moving, moving, moving,” he said, “we have stalling, stalling, stalling.”