Some senators need a lift, others use the elevator to go 'bunning' for cover

RESERVED: The "Senators Only" elevator in the Capitol building. (Dan Zak/twp - Dan Zak/The Washington Post)
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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The American people have been waiting for a word that neatly describes the act of shutting elevator doors in someone's face. That term has arrived: "bunning." As in, "You got bunninged!" or "Hold the doors, don't bunning me!" or "That guy's always bunning at work."

Sometimes the offender feigns deafness. Sometimes he pretends to press the "open" button while pushing "close." And sometimes he plays the senator card, as Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) did when ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl trailed him to an elevator in the Hart Senate Office Building Monday.

"Excuse me," Bunning said sternly when Karl breached the elevator threshold. "This is a senator-only elevator."

"Can I come on the elevator?" asked Karl, who had questions about Bunning's opposition to a bill that would extend unemployment benefits.

"No, you may not," said Bunning, with the tone of a headmaster.

The doors shut. The interview was over. Karl got bunninged.

The concept of members-only elevators makes the Hill seem very "Upstairs, Downstairs," as if senators and representatives are ensconced in velvet-lined lounges for the eight-second trips between meals, votes and the Capitol subway system. But unlike $400 haircuts and $29,000 bronze statues of fish, senators actually need their elevators to do their jobs. The elevators -- with their dumbwaiter size and ratty, Cabernet-colored carpeting -- provide expediency through exclusivity.

"It's not a huge building but it's constantly in motion when things are happening, and there's all sorts of situations that are established to enable [elected officials] to function," says Senate historian Donald Ritchie. "It's the same reason they have parking spaces. When the bells go off they could be in office buildings, and they've got to get to the floor in 15 minutes to cast their vote."

Sometimes the members-only elevator is the only way to bypass traffic jams of tourists, media and staff. Sometimes it's the only way to escape a tiresome or threatening situation.

A scrum broke out Tuesday afternoon at the bank of six elevators by the Senate chamber. Media, senators and security orbited each other on the black-and-white marble floor, as caramel-colored elevator doors dinged open and close. Like a pack of hyenas in blazers, reporters trapped senators as they moved between caucus lunches and a confirmation vote on a circuit court judge. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) were all detained beside the elevator, whose doors remained open, allowing them to back slowly in.

"I'm not trying to pull a Bunning or anything," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), joking as he took one last question and retreated to the elevator, the doors closing on reporters' noses. (Bunninged!)

Lift-wise, elected officials have always had special treatment. The Capitol's first hand-cranked elevator was installed for general use in the late 19th century. Senators signaled that they were waiting by ringing the bell three times. The operator would heed those calls first, regardless of how long other riders had been waiting. Even though automatic elevators replaced cage elevators in the 1960s and '70s, operators were still on hand to push buttons.

Arlington resident Gordon Thomas worked the Senate elevators from June 1973 to February 1974, when he was 21 and fresh out of college, and parlayed the job into a position on North Carolina Sen. Sam J. Ervin's subcommittee staff.

"It was always interesting to see senators behind those closed doors," says Thomas, now a lobbyist living in Arlington. "Sometimes they had a little different personality than in public. Senator [George D.] Aiken from Vermont was always looking for his wife between floors. Senator [George] McGovern was always very friendly. During one all-night filibuster, Senator James [B.] Allen from Alabama came out to apologize to the elevator boys for keeping us at work."

Today, on the Senate side, the members-only elevator is still staffed by operators, one of whom ordered reporters to "calm down" as Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) stepped out of the calmness of the cube after lunch Tuesday. The elevator is marked by a backlit placard next to the buttons and a green digital readout flashing over the elevator doors. Both say "SENATORS ONLY," although aides and guests often ride along at the invitation of a senator.

Soon the man of the hour entered the gantlet. Bunning was immediately surrounded by reporters who questioned his motives for objecting to the stopgap legislation on the floor. Bunning gave clipped, quiet answers as he inched his way to the back of the elevator. Reporters teetered on the threshold, hurling questions but respecting the line in the sand. One reporter tossed off a question about the brief solace provided by an exclusive elevator, but it went unanswered as the doors closed.

Bunninged again.

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