For Sen. Tester, Not Your Average Day in the Senate

Posted March 2, 2007 at 6:18pm

It’s probably a safe bet that not too many people walking through the basement halls of the Russell Senate Office Building notice the Senate Sheet Metal Shop, where workers mold the metal that will make up the air ducts, roofs and other elements of the Capitol complex.

But for Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the shop is a hidden treasure. And when the freshman Senator first noticed the workroom while walking by one day, he asked his staff to see if he could take a tour.

Last week, Tester got his wish.

“They do pretty good precision work,” the plain-speaking freshman lawmaker said of the shop. “I imagine they save a lot of money doing the work, because they can do things exactly as they want it.”

In fact, metal shop employees do lots of work for the Senate office buildings, including repairing roofs, designing and creating vents for air conditioning and heating systems, fabricating and installing stainless steel counters in Senate restaurants and overall maintenance duties, according to an Architect of the Capitol spokeswoman.

And although the windowless room is a long way from Big Sky Country, the shop was a little bit of home for the third-generation farmer from Montana, who said he had worked with similar equipment before — but admitted some of it was of a higher quality than he had seen back home.

Sporting square safety goggles, a gray linen suit and a Looney Tunes-themed tie, Tester quickly fit in at the shop, melting, welding and shearing the metal that eventually will become part of the Congressional campus.

Met at the door by Charles Smith, the shop’s supervisor, Tester spent about 30 minutes testing out the shop’s equipment and joking with workers, most of whom have spent years honing their craft.

Smith personally brought Tester to each individual work station, introducing him to workers and explaining what the equipment is used for.

At the first stop, Smith showed Tester a piece of metal that needed to be spot-welded for a metal segment that would be installed in one of the new Senate offices (possibly for the recently elected Tester, in fact).

Without hesitation, the Senator immediately started doing some of the spot-welding for himself.

“Do you have a certain pattern on these? So many inches apart?” the Senator asked as he positioned the metal.

“That’s good,” Smith said as he watched Tester. “That’s perfect.”

At the next station, Jaime Morillo, a 15-year veteran of the metal shop, explained to Tester how metal smiths weld a particular type of metal.

Tester again tried the equipment out for himself, putting on Morillo’s elaborate blue safety helmet, decorated with a smiling, sinister clown.

“That’s a sweet helmet,” Tester said.

Aside from its aesthetic value, the helmet is incredibly important to the safety of the workers, Smith explained. The bright blue light created by the welding can harm, and possibly blind, the workers if they look directly into it.

But all Tester wanted to do was get down to business.

“Oh baby, I’m ready to go!” Tester yelled, laughing as he put the helmet on.

As Tester stopped at each work station, members of the shop crew smiled and complimented the Senator on his metal-working skills. When the Senator got some solder on his boot, the workers tried to clean it off, but Tester insisted it wasn’t a big deal.

Instead, he seemed more interested in the shop’s large shearing machine, bending down to watch as it chopped the pieces of large sheet metal into smaller, more workable sizes.

“That’s cool,” Tester concluded.

At the end of the tour, the metal smiths asked for a group photo with the Senator (“You damn right,” he replied), although Tester seemed more impressed with their work than his own.

“I take no responsibility,” he laughed, as he signed the piece of metal he had spot-welded at the start of the tour.

“Thanks for doing what you do,” Tester said as he left. “This is good stuff down here.”