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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)

Bah, humbug!

In the annals of Senate yuletide tradition, nothing has been quite like this. The Senate last convened a Christmas Eve session in 1963, as the Vietnam War escalated, for a report on foreign aid appropriations, said Betty Koed, associate Senate historian. The chamber has never been in session on Dec. 25, she said -- not even during the 1700s and early 1800s, when senators remained in Washington through the winter because there was no easy transportation to and from their states.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said his wife shipped a Christmas tree from Vermont to his home in Washington, and she's planning to join him here for Christmas.

Republicans have been quick to cast Democratic leaders as grinches calling for votes so close to Christmas. Of course, the Senate may have already finished its business were it not for GOP delay tactics, such as Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) demanding last week that the clerk read aloud a 767-page amendment.

The marathon debate on health-care legislation has become the "era of the unexpected," Lauren Gilchrist said. As the top health policy aide to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Gilchrist has been working on overdrive. "You don't want to be that crazy person who e-mails at 3:30 in the morning, but sometimes you are," she said.

Gilchrist said she has been clocking so many hours that she long ago stopped cooking her meals and hasn't been to the gym since August. "It got to a point where there was a bag of Halloween candy and I'd eaten everything except those really gross candy corns," she said.

When the voting is finally over, Gilchrist, 33, plans to fly home to Minnesota and stay for a while. "I'm going to cook, hang out with my friends and family, exercise again, read novels and things that are not blogs, and be normal again."

For many staff members, the search for food sometimes has been a test of survival. On Saturday morning, with some restaurants shuttered because of the snowstorm, about two dozen staff members -- and even a few senators -- stood in line in a tiny Capitol basement snack shop for egg sandwiches and coffee. It's a source of pride for a Florida senator's health-care aide that he has been eating three meals a day from the Senate cafeteria for 19 days and counting.

On the Finance Committee, whose members wrote the health-care bill, tales of woe abound. Tom Reeder, a senior counsel who helped draft key tax provisions, has guests from Alaska staying with him in Alexandria. But he has not seen them, because they are asleep when he comes home at night and are still in bed when he leaves for work in the morning.

Russ Sullivan, the committee's Democratic staff director, has been given the key to his dry cleaner because he never makes it during business hours to pick up his clothes.

Few staff members are griping -- and if they are, it's strictly off the record, lest they draw negative attention to their bosses. "No one's complaining," said Scott Mulhauser, a top adviser to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). "Everyone's just excited to be at the center of this."

But a senior aide to another Democratic senator acknowledged -- anonymously, of course -- that "it's a little frustrating."

"It's the week before Christmas," he said, "and we'd rather be getting ready for the holidays."


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