Some Calm Amid the Storm

With the world's eyes on Tokyo, crock-pot weather takes the front page in a quiet D.C.

THE downtown sidewalks and lunch joints are still busy with gray suits and pumps. The scores of federal agencies from the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations to the Voice of America are still going about their business.

Almost as if everything were normal.

But, of course, it is not. The difference is not just that it is a little too easy to get a table at Duke Zeibert's, the political lunching place of choice.

The difference is that the cameras are gone from Washington this week. The eyes of the world are not upon us.

With President Clinton and many of his top aides in Tokyo until the weekend and Congress out of session until next Tuesday, the city is momentarily ordinary.

Only the monuments are grand. For a few days, daily life is not the stuff of history - nor fodder for repackaging to the millions through the news.

The Washington Post, normally akin to a trade journal for political junkies, is allowing the crock-pot weather to dominate the front page, just like a regular metropolitan newspaper.

In the West Wing of the White House, much of top staff is with Mr. Clinton in Tokyo. Chief of Staff Mack McLarty is here, but the usual morning senior staff meeting is on hiatus.

Many of the National Security Council aides are on the trip, of course, but so are presidential counselor and message-maker David Gergen, communications director Mark Gearan, press secretary Dee Dee Myers, and Mr. McLarty's deputy, Roy Neel, among others.

For those who remain, this is a chance to get organized and clear desks of backlogged work. But fewer decisions are made, creating other backlogs.

The press briefing room, with its familiar podium before a blue curtain and White House emblem, is arguably the most-seen room in Washington. With the stage dark this week, it is torn up for refurbishing.

Open trenches around the driveway and Rose Garden await the burial of cables that sound and camera crews have kept strewn around the grounds in recent years.

This means that practices like the driveway stakeout, where officials are collared for interviews on their way out of meetings with the president, are getting hardwired into place.

Inside the press offices, duty officer Arthur Jones keeps a detailed, minute-by-minute schedule of the president and the press always open to the current page showing where they are in Tokyo.

On Capitol Hill, the press galleries where reporters hustle and lounge and the Triangle out on the lawn where a steady succession of lawmakers hold forth for their hometown camera crews, are all quiet.

The congressional staff members who remain - many of whom are exhausted from months of long legislative hours - are catching their collective breath while the whirr of cameras, egos, and pressing agendas is out of town.

Perhaps the busiest hives on the Hill are the staff offices of the tax-writing committees, preparing for the joint House-Senate budget conference next week. The leaders of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee will be at the heart of the fiercest action when the effort begins Tuesday to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the federal budget.

The quiet at the heart of Washington is only a passing hiatus. The budget politics will be intense from the start next week, and Mr. Clinton also faces the next week's politically treacherous deadline for handling the report from the Defense Department to him on how to ease the ban on gays in the military.

For better or worse, Washington will get plenty of attention.

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