If You're Looking for a Good Time in Lame-Duck DC

Consider going to Capitol Hill and dropping in on the Senate during its marathon sessions in the frantic few days before it takes its Christmas break.

During normal tourist times in Washington, getting into the Congressional galleries can be a huge pain. You wait in long lines, you're ushered in and out for a relatively short stay, you're amid busfuls of visiting tour groups, and unless you happen to be in one of those visiting groups, on the whole it's better just to watch things on C-Span if you follow them at all.

But two days ago, on a very cold Sunday in DC (Potomac frozen bank-to-bank by the Kennedy Center in December -- not a usual sight), my wife and I were on the Mall with our two visiting sons, thawing out in the always-wonderful US Botanic Gardens Conservatory. By chance we ran into friends we'd known in Beijing, one American and two Chinese. They said that they had come straight from the Capitol, where they'd been sitting listening to a debate about the new START treaty. "The doorkeepers thanked us for coming," one of our friends said, "We were the only ones there."

Hmmm! We walked up Capitol Hill, descended into the huge underground maw of the new Visitors Center, and after passing two security checkpoints (metal detectors; but no shoes-off or pat-downs) we came into the Senate gallery just as a vote on a START amendment was taking place. There were far more Senators on the floor than civilians in the gallery -- it was one of those rare moments when nearly all the Senators show up to vote, overseen by the unblinking C-Span cameras and a crowd of maybe 20 or 30 civilian spectators.

So we stayed through the afternoon and several cycles of activity: First the full, Brueghel-esque crowd of 80 or 90 famous-and-obscure Senatorial faces, Harry Reid joking with Dick Durbin, John McCain stalking angrily in and out, lameducks like Blanche Lincoln and Byron Dorgan looking none the worse, newbies like Joe Manchin and Chris Coons seeming to glance around for cues about how to fit in. Al Franken, surprisingly stocky as he trudged about. Mitch McConnell, strangely affectless. John Thune and John Kerry towering above most everyone else. Gravelly-voiced Chuck Schumer sounding as if he was at the microphone whether or not it was turned on. The staff assistants who bustled around the floor all had obvious passes around their necks, but even without them: you can normally tell at a glance who is a usually-on-camera politician and who is not. (There are a few exceptions among the Senators, but no point in naming them.)

Then a full-out roll call vote on an appeals-court nominee, which took many readings of the roll and ended up in a cliffhanger 92-0 margin. And  voice-vote approval of a district court judge. (This is the new era of harmony? If passage was going to be this easy, why had formal action been delayed for months?) Then, as the floor began to empty, a rousing statement by John Tester, of Montana, about the glorious victory of the Carroll College Fighting Saints in the NAIA championship football game. And then a much longer and more detailed statement by Mike Enzi, of Wyoming, about the birth of his grandchild that day, plus thoughts about his other children and grandchildren, by name. And a note of affirmation by James Inhofe*, of Oklahoma, about his own 20 children and grandchildren, illustrated with a poster-sized group photo of them all. And a complimentary (and complementary) remark by John Kerry about family news of his stepson Christopher Heinz, whose late father John Heinz had of course been a Senator.

And then actual START debate between Kerry and Inhofe, about which I'll simply say: Kerry has been a champion debater through all his life. Inhofe has not. (To summarize: Inhofe raised impassioned objections about the lack of verification under the new treaty. Kerry calmly pointed out that the treaty didn't work the way Inhofe thought. Inhofe resumed with the same passion and the exact same objections.) With no cattiness quotient whatsoever, Kerry -- who was running things for the Democrats nearly the whole time we were there -- looked and sounded great. Like his predecessor as Mass. senior senator Teddy Kennedy, he is someone who aspired beyond the Senate but may have found his true home there.

I have no larger point point except to say: many of the Senators are grumbling about having to stay in session this week in DC, but it's a show not to miss, if you happen to be in the vicinity while normal tourist traffic is at a low ebb. [*Note: Sen. Inhofe's last named misspelled in early version of this post. Apologies, and thanks to JM for the catch.]

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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