A shutdown hours away, Congress spends time praying, hiking, parenting, partying


Reps. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.), left, and Filemon Vela (D-Tex.) pose at Monticello on Sunday. (Courtesy of the office of Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Tex.))
September 29, 2013

It’s an odd predicament for a modern-day member of Congress: How do you kill time during a weekend in Washington?

With precious hours remaining until the end of the fiscal year, there were no meetings between House and Senate leaders Sunday to break the logjam and avoid a government shutdown. Both sides dug in, leaving lawmakers with plenty of free time.

They rarely spend idle time in the nation’s capital, usually fleeing Capitol Hill quickly on Thursdays or Fridays to fly home to see their families and address political concerns. But on this rare weekend — with the House in session, the Senate returning earlier than usual on Monday and the immediate fate of the federal government hanging in the balance — hundreds of lawmakers took advantage of a rare stretch in the District and explored.

Rep. Vicki Hartzler (R-Mo.) went to church. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) took a hike. Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.) missed a chance to honor his late parents back home, while Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) kept in touch with his kids from afar. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) played tour guide, and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) went to a wedding.

Hartzler did what many Washingtonians do on a Sunday morning and headed for the pews. She started with a rare hour-long prayer service in the House chapel and later attended services at Capitol Hill Baptist Church.

The prayer service was the idea of Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), who remembered how Benjamin Franklin summoned the Founding Fathers to prayer during a deadlock at the Constitutional Convention.

Walberg “suggested that it might be a good time to follow the examples of our forefathers and spend some time praying,” Hartz­ler said. “We had a very special time, somber time, praying for our president, praying for the Senate and praying for our constituents.”

Noting how rare it is to see colleagues on the weekends, Hartz­ler acknowledged that she could not recall the last time she spent a Sunday in Washington.

Gabbard spends several weekends in the District because a flight to Hawaii can take a whole day. Knowing that many of her colleagues were in town with nothing to do, “I woke up and gave a few people a phone call and said, ‘Hey, let’s go for a hike.’ ”

She piled into a car with Reps. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) and Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) and headed for the Billy Goat Trail along the Potomac River in Maryland.

“It’s just absolutely beautiful,” O’Rourke said. The freshman lawmaker, who flies home every weekend to visit his wife and three young children, had been warned by longtime legislators that he would have little time to explore Washington.

“At the time, I thought: ‘Well, that’s crazy. You’re in one of the greatest cities in our country. I’m sure you’ve got to have a chance to do that.’ But I now realize that you don’t,” he said. “You’re working, you’re voting, you’re in committee meetings, and you rarely leave the Hill. And when you’re not doing those things, you’re on a plane back to your district.

Asked whether anyone recognized the trio on the trail, Schock said no. “We don’t really look the same when we’re in shorts and T-shirts,” he said. Schock said he realized that “gee, maybe if we spent more time together like this that maybe we could get more done.”

Shortly before dinnertime Saturday, Larson was wandering the Capitol basement in search of coffee. He had no idea when votes might be held and thought a Washington Post reporter might know more than he did.

It was not supposed to be this way for Larson, not this particular night. Up in East Hartford, his parents were being honored for a lifetime of community service, and he had wanted to be there. Local officials were renaming the health center in the Mayberry School for his mother, Pauline, who had served on the school board, and his father, Ray, who was a noted local businessman.

But back in the House basement, Larson finally found the Capitol Carry-Out, leading to a burst of energy after some coffee. He said his wife told him that she had become used to him missing big events, but the one for his parents was different. “It is what it is,” he said with a shrug.

Instead of honoring parents, several lawmakers were seen filling their roles as parents on the House floor Saturday afternoon. Reps. Stephen Lee Fincher (R-Tenn.) and Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) had their young daughters with them and introduced them to colleagues. Cuellar was not as lucky; an aide said he spent part of his weekend on the phone helping his daughters in Texas with homework. He spent the rest of the time cleaning his apartment.

Eager to get out of town, Reps. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) and Filemon Vela (D-Tex.)and Vela’s wife, Rose, hopped in a car early Sunday and headed to Charlottesville to visit Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate. “I promised my wife we’d do it the first day we had time to go,” Vela said.

McCarthy spent his Sunday as a tour guide for a visiting World War II Honor Flight group. After a tour of the Capitol, McCarthy joined the group at the National World War II Memorial on the Mall to lay a wreath at the California column. Aides said he was planning a 20-mile bike ride with about half a dozen colleagues Monday morning, something they have done before.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) got out of Washington for a few hours Friday night to attend a dinner with coal producers at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also left town, flying home to San Francisco on Saturday to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary. She flew back early Sunday and held a dinner for several Democrats on Sunday night at Acqua Al 2, an Italian restaurant near Eastern Market, aides said.

Reid spends most of his weekends in Washington and showed up at the Four Seasons in Georgetown on Saturday night to celebrate the wedding of Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Several other senators, including Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), also attended.

Eager to avoid suggestions that the senator lingers too long in Washington, an aide noted that Heitkamp spends most of her weekends in North Dakota.

Jackie Kucinich and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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