On Capitol Hill, pre-Christmas presence is a lump of coal

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Don't tell Senate majority leader Bill Frist, but the joke running around the Capitol support staff - worried they'll have to work right up until the holiday weekend - is that he's "the Frist who stole Christmas."

The source is an otherwise cheerful Capitol police officer who had planned his anniversary celebration for Wednesday night, because he thought "there was no way the Senate would still be in session the Wednesday before Christmas." Now he's out two tickets to "Les Misérables," an apt title for the mood among many stuck here, especially those who don't get to cast votes.

"It's the job," he says, echoing the sentiment of senators who are gamely trying to juggle schedules and now-defunct plane reservations. Ever tried to change flight plans, daily, the week before Christmas?

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On the Senate floor and (mainly) behind closed doors, there are big issues to settle: more than $1 trillion in defense and social spending; a war that's costing $2 billion a week; $40 billion in spending cuts, mainly affecting the poor; drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness, and whether the sneaking and peeking in the Patriot Act is worth the lives it might save.

Some senators say the wait is worth it. "At a certain point, senators are beyond exasperated, as they try to get home for the holidays," says Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon. "But with so many issues my constituents feel strongly about in the balance, we should be here."

Did all those big decisions have to come down to this week? In a word: maybe. Since 1945, Congress has thumped gavels into December exactly half the time, even though the adjournment date on congressional planning calendars is Oct. 1. In 1947, lawmakers didn't decamp until New Year's Eve.

Staying late is "trivial, compared to the stakes," says Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan. "It's part of the job and we accept it, my wife and I."

GOP Sen. Arlen Specter's wife, Joan, in the audience at a press conference last week, didn't look so sure. When her husband quipped to the press about being in session until the New Year holiday, she gave him a discreet thumbs down.

Other senators, too, risk upsetting conjugal felicity. "I was supposed to go to the symphony with my wife," says Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska. "I just called her, and she didn't sound too pleased."

The congressional travel office, meanwhile, is scrambling to help members and staff reschedule flight reservations heading into peak holiday travel days. Unlike the traveling public, members of Congress don't pay a penalty when they have to change reservations at the last minute, thanks to a government contract with the airlines. But they still need to find an empty seat on a plane.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California has a system: Hold reservations both one and two days out. "I'm allowed two," she says. "Once I heard that [adjournment] was not Tuesday, I booked for Thursday."

Her colleague on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, isn't so confident. "I'm not sure I can get a flight, and my wife is already out there," he says. "Now, suddenly, you've got to find another way home. But you know, it's part of the job."

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