TUCKED away at the bottom of the longest flight of steps outside the United States Capitol Building is a lonely cr`eche. The usual flock of tourists has flown, and the music of a loudspeaker next to the cr`eche tells where they've gone: ``There's no place like home for the holidays.'' That's where most members of government - including Congress - have gone, too. ``It's really dead around here,'' sighs a Capitol policeman, scanning the nearly empty plaza on the east side of the Capitol.
Christmas annually offers Washington a respite from the usual bustle. This year the city actually throttled down the week before Christmas, not to rev up until Jan. 3, when the 102nd Congress is officially sworn in.
But during this year's holiday hiatus a sense of unease hangs over the city. Like all of America, Washington is concerned about the deteriorating Middle East: Will there be a peaceful resolution of the Iraq situation - or war?
Behind the war issue lies another grave one, America's economy, with broad implications for individuals' jobs and the nation's budget.
But it is a war-or-peace atmosphere that now dominates Washington.
On the even of Christmas, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, went to Washington to brief President Bush on their just-completed trip to the Gulf. The war drums in America's capital were beating louder as they flew. Secretary Cheney himself said that ``the days are drawing closer when we may be forced to resort to military force'' to push Iraq from Kuwait.
Just before the holidays began, the House Armed Services Committee concluded three weeks of hearings on the Gulf issue, listening to witnesses offer different perspectives. The views ranged from continued reliance of economic sanctions to use of military force to evict Iraq from Kuwait, if Saddam Hussein fails to withdraw by the UN's Jan. 15 deadline.
During one of the last days of testimony Jeane Kirkpatrick, a former US ambassador to the UN, warned that Saddam will be more dangerous if he escapes from the current situation without penalty.
``One of the most useful penalties that we could impose on Saddam Hussein would be first, financial, the cost of restoring Kuwait,'' Ambassador Kirkpatrick said. She offered a second: ``That he be deprived of his offensive military capacity, because he has demonstrated that it is a threat to the world.''
The talk of war contrasts with the displays for the holiday of the Prince of Peace, from the massive national Christmas tree outside the White House to informal little displays in congressional offices.
A red-bowed evergreen wreath with three tiny American flags hangs from the glass front door of Room 141 of the Senate Hart Office Building, the office of Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas.
Halfway down a marble-floor hallway in the Cannon House Office Building, a lighted Christmas tree cheerily greets visitors to the office of Rep. Joel Hefley (R) of Colorado.
A few doors away a frieze of Christmas cards frames the rich wooden doorway of Rep. Gerald Kleczka (D) of Wisconsin.
In some parts of Capitol Hill this holiday season provides neither time away nor a wrestling match with a crucial international issue. For these people it is a moving time, nonetheless: They are the members and staff engaged in the biennial moving game, to better or more convenient offices.
Staff members who usually are in suits or sophisticated dresses to greet visitors from around the nation now are in jeans and running shoes to greet boxes from other offices.
At Room 239 of the Cannon House Office Building, movers push in with desks and boxes. It is the new home away from home of Rep. Pete Stark (D) California, moving from the Longworth Building next door.