Desperate for a Reprieve From Capitol Punishment

By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 4, 2007

On a warm morning earlier this week, Debbie Dingell, the 53-year-old president of the General Motors Foundation and wife of Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), sits in a restaurant near Capitol Hill. From a distance, looking at Dingell eating her French toast at 9:30 -- a rarity for a woman who goes to work at 5 a.m. -- she seems an entirely unstressed person.

But the view up close, with actual sound, presents a much darker picture.

"I've been around a long time," Dingell says, "and this is the worst it's ever been. The atmosphere on the Hill is acrimonious, and fatigue has set in. It's time for a break. All I hear from people is, 'I cannot wait to get out of here.' "

A few days later, lobbyist Clifton "Chip" Rodgers, who once served in President George H.W. Bush's Treasury Department, looks at the dark waters off Cantina Marina in Southwest Washington. A crowd including Hill staffers and lobbyists has gathered to celebrate the end of the congressional session and to hear a performance by the Second Amendments, a band largely composed of members of Congress. Meanwhile, sweltering young men still in jackets and ties and young women in summer dresses reach over one another to grab the bartender's attention.

"I've never looked forward to a recess like this one," says Rodgers, sipping a beer. "Everyone's exhausted on both sides of the aisle. They're dealing with a new dynamic when it comes to Washington. And a lot of them are overwhelmed."

Yesterday, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) sits curled in a leather chair in his office. He'd been on the House floor late into the evening and got up early to mow his lawn in Alexandria. His wife and family and the waves of Lake Michigan await him at his home in St. Joseph, Mich.

"There have been a lot of late-night sessions," Upton says. "Even with the 'Contract With America,' we didn't have these many votes."

The beginning of August has long signaled a mass exodus from Capitol Hill. In the idealized past, that exodus followed months in which Washington's political elite battered the hell out of one another during a shortened work week, only to greet one another warmly over drinks at the Palm. August was a time when you could escape the heat and kick back with friends and constituents back home.

"It's hot, it's humid, people are tired and ready to go home," says Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) as he sucks on a cigarette at the Cantina Marina event. "Most of America wants us to go home. It's like this every summer."

But it's not every summer that lawmakers take to cots in the Senate to dramatize an all-night debate over the Iraq war. Nor is it every summer that angry Republicans march off the House floor in the wee hours to protest a parliamentary maneuver by Democrats.

"I've been in Washington for 37 years, and the only time I've seen more partisan vitriol was during the post-'98 impeachment," says lawyer Lanny Davis. "This includes Watergate. Everyone I talk to wants to get out of town and take a shower because we're all feeling depressed and dirty."

Davis, soon headed to a dude ranch in Wyoming with his family, says the language has definitely changed.

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