The United States Capitol during a recess is like a college campus during summer break. Quiet reigns. Elevator operators and congressional subway drivers read the newspaper between calls. The House and Senate floors are populated only by visitors. The people you're most likely to encounter in the corridors are wandering tourists.
Yet behind the large, closed wooden doors of offices and committee rooms, a lot is still going on.
Other than the scrum for prime office space, hot topic No. 1 was a mini-rebellion launched by Rep. Peter King of New York, who called for Speaker Newt Gingrich to step aside for a year until ethics charges against him are resolved or he rehabilitates his image. Representative King told a Capitol Hill newspaper that as many as 15 to 20 GOP House members agreed with him. Then freshman Rep. Steve Largent of Oklahoma made similar comments, and Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut said he would vote for Mr. Gingrich in the House GOP conference, but would abstain on the floor in January unless the ethics committee's report is released.
House Republican leaders wasted no time in circling the wagons around the Speaker, issuing a statement that they "unequivocally" support his reelection. Meanwhile, John Linder of Georgia, the new chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee said members urging Gingrich to step down "should keep their mouths shut." Two head counts show the Speaker will have no problem with his reelection.
Hot topic No. 2 was the apparent defeat of GOP Rep. Robert "B-1 Bob" Dornan in California. Mr. Dornan, who is known for saying what he thinks no matter how politically incorrect, immediately charged that Democrat Loretta Sanchez owed her victory to illegal votes from "non-citizens." In other undecided races, California Rep. George Brown (D) eked out an 865-vote victory, while in Washington state, freshman Republican Reps. Linda Smith and Jack Metcalf both opened up leads over their Democrat challengers, who had originally appeared to defeat the incumbents. Should the Republicans win, the House makeup would be 227 Republicans, 205 Democrats, 1 Independent (Bernard Sanders of Vermont), and two races in Texas to be decided Dec. 10. (A third race that day is between two Republicans.)
On the Senate side, while all races are decided, a brouhaha is developing in Louisiana, where the defeated Republican, Woody Jenkins, filed a lawsuit challenging the results. Democrat Mary Landrieu was declared the winner by 5,899 votes.
For reelected House members, the most important matter on the agenda this week was the biennial game of musical offices. Members scramble, on a seniority basis, to get offices that are bigger, have a better view, or are closer to the elevators that take them to the subway running from the office buildings to the Capitol. Members with seven or more terms got first crack at offices left behind by retiring members. Representatives and staffers trickled into the Commerce Committee room to find out the available office numbers, which were displayed on three large whiteboards. The incoming freshmen, who arrived Friday for orientation, get the leftovers.
One of the tougher questions of the week: Did Senate majority leader Trent Lott mean it when he said he'd model his tenure on that of Charles McNary, whose portrait hangs in his office? McNary, according to the Senate Press Gallery staff, who dug it out of "Current Biography" for 1940, was a Senator from Oregon and minority leader during the Franklin Roosevelt years. He is described as "serpent-wise in politics" and an unstinting representative of the West and farmers. When nominated as Wendell Wilkie's running mate in 1940, he told the GOP convention "I am grateful for the confidence reposed in me by the convention, but I wish they had imposed the chore on someone else." He was also the "best-liked man in the Senate and its ablest parliamentarian."
Perhaps that's what Senator Lott had in mind.