They're Fishing on the Hill, but It's No Vacation
Thursday, August 4, 2005
It's so quiet in the Senate office buildings this week you can hear a sink running somewhere, an elevator door opening two floors down. After weeks of legislative drama, August recess came like a tourniquet, suddenly stopping the constant rush. In one first-floor office, someone is deep into the comics; in another, the staff is perfecting its rubber-band ball.
"The phones are so dead, it's eerie," says a young staffer who is lounging on a leather couch in a reception area in her denim skirt. (Denim! In Dirksen!)
True, unless you are one of the unlucky ones behind an unmarked door on the second floor. These six people are the leading contenders for Washington's Employees of the Month: They've been working until 10 every night, contributing to the office pool to buy a new coffeemaker to keep them up later. Someone in a great hurry just came by to drop off "some stuff" and then get some more stuff from the safe. Two cell phones ring at the same time, and then everyone cheers because a defunct e-mail connection has been restored.
Here, vacation talk is about how the family is going to the beach without you. "It definitely doesn't feel like August," says Helaine Greenfeld, who runs this office, known at the moment as the "central artery" -- a special unit of the 50-member Democratic Judiciary Committee staff where Democrats vet all of President Bush's judicial and executive nominations.
Officially it's the "Noms Unit." It has a Republican equivalent, which is working just as hard to anticipate all the Democrats' moves. For both sides, this is the most intense period since Bush nominated Alberto Gonzales for attorney general. If John G. Roberts Jr., the president's nominee to the Supreme Court, has written or said anything shocking, or has an Anita Hill somewhere in his past, it is the Noms Unit's job to find it before the hearings begin Sept. 6.
"I don't want to tell them it's a marathon, because we don't have that much time. And it's not quite a sprint. Maybe a relay?" Greenfeld says, searching for the best inspirational metaphor to keep her staff of five (and growing) focused on the task.
The staff allowed only a brief review of its operations, and for the most part its members would not speak on the record. But even on the surface, the workload is obvious: Boxes crowd the hallway, four high, two deep, parsing Roberts's life: "Hogan and Hartson," the law firm where he worked; "Solicitor General briefs," from his years working for President George H.W. Bush; "Supreme Court Oral Arguments," from the years he represented clients before the high court.
Binders on a table subdivide categories further into issues: "Affirmative Action," "Civil Rights." In a glass office in back, the "Noms Crack Unit" pores over the papers -- hundreds of thousands of pages' worth, highlighting and sorting as it goes.
The staff here has a necessarily ambivalent relationship with paper. ("Poor trees" is the unofficial office motto.) The current Democratic position on the Roberts nomination can be summarized as "more paper!" -- a unified push to get the administration to release briefs that Roberts wrote while he worked in two Republican administrations.
Last week the White House made its first concession, handing over briefs mostly from Roberts's time as an attorney in the Reagan administration. The papers arrived six hours later than promised, just before dinnertime. Twelve boxes, each holding 15,000 pages, wheeled in on dollies. The committee had requested four copies but got two, which meant a night of photocopying. Reality set in. Two people, a Republican staffer and a Democratic staffer, canceled their vacations. Greenfeld, who normally works four days a week, promised her husband and two kids she'd make it to the beach for part of the time.
They are not really looking for the one golden nugget, or an "aha moment," says Tracy Schmaler, press secretary for the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. Roberts has a reputation as a genial conservative with a nice family and a short history as a sitting judge. The people here say they are looking to flesh out that picture.
Staff members say they read for "voice." Roberts's briefs from the attorney general's office during the Reagan administration, for example, give the impression of a crusading conservative.