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

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; A01

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.

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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