Slumber Party Politics on the Hill

Fold-away beds are rolled into the Capitol's LBJ Room before the rare all-night session to push for a vote on withdrawing troops from Iraq.
Fold-away beds are rolled into the Capitol's LBJ Room before the rare all-night session to push for a vote on withdrawing troops from Iraq. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Around 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon, U.S. Capitol workers opened the doors to S-211, known officially as the Lyndon Baines Johnson Room and unofficially as the Taj Mahal. Inside? Nine mattresses that had been brought in from Cheverly on metal frames. Suddenly the pristine room looked like an Army barracks dropped into the parlor of a 19th-century hostess.

In theory, the mattresses would offer a comfy respite for Democratic senators participating in Majority Leader Harry Reid's plan for an around-the-clock Senate debate over a proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by April. In reality, the scene was a photo op designed to show that Democrats were prepped for battle.

Looking at the cots, one couldn't help but think of the scene in "The Godfather" in which Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen, the Corleone family's consigliore, and James Caan's Sonny Corleone argue over how to respond to an attempt to kill Sonny's father, Don Corleone.

"Sonny," Hagen says, "let's talk about this and get a meeting up."

"No!" Sonny shouts back. "No more meetings . . . we go to the mattresses."

In the film, going to the mattresses meant drawing in all the members of the extended crime family to sleep and eat in one place so they'd be together as they sought revenge for the Godfather's shooting. In Reid's case, the cots were meant as a symbol of his party's dedication to resolving the United States' role in a war he sees as already lost. Whether anyone would actually sleep on them was beside the point.

A dozen or so beds reside with the Senate sergeant at arms, who stores them for such occasions. Since 1915 there have been all-night sessions on civil rights issues, atomic energy and judicial nominations. Senators trying to overcome a filibuster have used the technique to keep the Senate in session to wear down the minority and force a vote. Bring in the PJs!

According to Senate associate historian Don Ritchie, all-nighters are associated with three things: doing actual business, holding filibusters and attracting the nation's focus to something.

"Drawing public attention is part of the public process and it always has been," Ritchie says. "In terms of trying to end a filibuster, there's more pressure on the majority, since they're the ones who have to keep a quorum. The minority can keep one or two people there and the rest can sleep at home in their beds. It's the majority that has to stay and sleep on the cots."

For people in their 30s, the sight of cots plunked down in ornate spaces is soooooo 1997. That's when a lot of young, ambitious people headed to San Francisco for Web ventures, for long hours in self-contained spaces with pool tables and dart boards, PlayStations and, yes, beds.

"The first time I saw it was in California," says corporate consultant Joe Calloway, author of "Work Like You're Showing Off." "It was in the Bay Area of San Francisco in an Internet start-up. People at their cubicles had sleeping bags, cots and mattresses. It was very much of a cultural thing. With them, it had to do with the cool factor."

Before then we associated sleeping with slackers: Dagwood snoozing at his desk in "Blondie," or "Seinfeld's" George Costanza setting up a napping spot beneath his desk at Yankee Stadium.

But this was a time when young people worked in a kind of self-sustaining bubble. You could live, play, drink, date and even sleep at your workplace. Why travel down to the marina when there was a gin and tonic waiting for you on the roof? Why go home when you had your bed leaning against your desk?

Of course, there were other reasons for the sleep gear. Like the cots in the LBJ Room, the mattresses served as testimony to just how hard these 20-somethings (soon to overrun business schools with applications as a way of getting out of the job market) were pushing themselves to make people, say, buy things like pet food online.

"It said, 'Look how dedicated we are,' " Calloway says. "It told their backers, 'We are willing to stay here all night in order to get things done.' It was a badge of honor for these guys. It didn't matter that they weren't selling anything."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company