Health-care vote means senators will spend Christmas Eve at the Capitol

A staff member answers phone calls near a Christmas tree in the Russell Senate Office Building. The health-care bill will keep many Senate aides in Washington for the holidays this year.
A staff member answers phone calls near a Christmas tree in the Russell Senate Office Building. The health-care bill will keep many Senate aides in Washington for the holidays this year. (Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)

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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

It's the bill that stole Christmas.

Behind each cranky senator dealing his or her way toward a historic Christmas Eve vote on health-care reform is a cadre of staff members laboring day and night to make sense of the ever-changing 2,457-page bill, tutor their bosses, spin the press and break down what it means for constituents back home.

Senators and their staff members have been deprived of sleep and are subsisting on takeout pad Thai, cafeteria panini and office cookies. Stuck on Capitol Hill every day since Nov. 30, they have had no time for the gym, let alone Christmas -- no time to buy a tree, unpack lights and ornaments, or shop for presents. Republican aides have taken to wishing one another a "Harry, Harry Christmas," a not-so-subtle slight at Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the Ebenezer Scrooge majority leader.

With the final vote on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act slated to start after sundown Dec. 24, senators and hundreds of their health policy analysts, press secretaries and other aides -- not to mention the universe of police officers, clerks and student pages who keep the place humming -- wishing to be with their families will instead spend the holiday in Washington. And there's a possibility the Senate could be called back next week, to take up debt-limit legislation.

For all the drama playing out on the chamber floor, hundreds of mini-family crises are playing out in e-mails and phone calls summed up by one weighty concern: What about Christmas?

The prospect of not making it home has senators and their aides so vexed that some have not confessed the scheduling details to their families. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr.'s daughter found out about the scheduled Christmas Eve vote while watching CNN on Saturday. "Mom!" she shrieked upon hearing the news.

On Sunday, the Pennsylvania Democrat drove four hours north to his Scranton home. After two hours with his wife and kids, he headed back to be at the Capitol in time for a 1 a.m. cloture vote. He said the family time was worth the risk of getting stuck in the snow on a highway and missing the vote.

But he acknowledged that Senate leaders never would have forgiven him. "I would have been a dead man," Casey said.

Unlike most years, when the Senate takes off several weeks around the holidays, few key aides made Christmas vacation plans this year, knowing it could come to this.

Those who did are staying flexible. A Democratic aide on the Senate Finance Committee said she booked two flights to Boston, one leaving on Dec. 23 and the other on the 24th, to ensure she'll make it to her uncle's house by Christmas.

A top aide to a Democratic senator said she hopes to be in Wisconsin on Christmas Eve to join her family at a lake house. "My mom has been very nervous about planning a family hayride and sleigh ride, and wants to know if I'm in or out," said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "My mom kicked me out of the sleigh ride because I didn't RSVP."

With no time to pick out presents for her young nieces and nephews, she hit up the Senate's basement gift shop. "Everyone's getting a United States Senate mug for Christmas this year," she said.

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