With votes on the line, the media scrum circles 'round

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; C01

At 12:20 on a recent afternoon in the U.S. Senate, dozens of political reporters crammed behind a burgundy velvet rope and stared intently at a half-dozen elevators between them and the chamber doors.

Ding. Out came tourists in shorts. Ding. Nobodies in business suits with sticky day passes. Ding.

Out walked Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

"Senator Nelson!" Victoria McGrane, a Dow Jones reporter, called out, leading the pack. "Are you changing your vote?"

"No," replied Nelson, referring to yet another vote to allow a vote on a financial regulation bill. Then he stopped and turned at the chamber doors, which two young ushers swung open for him. "I'll be sending out a news release."

"He's sending you a release?" another reporter, who arrived late, asked McGrane.

"Yeah, he's sending me personally a news release," said McGrane, rolling her eyes as Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) walked past her unmolested. The reporters returned to their holding pen behind the rope, their backs to a view of the Supreme Court, their heads bent over notebooks, their shoulders leaning on white Corinthian columns.

They waited.

A few minutes later, Nelson exited the chamber and allowed a thick orbit of reporters to quickly build around him. The journalists pushed digital tape recorders and black corncob-shaped radio microphones through the tangle of arms, aiming toward his moving jowls and silver hair. Unable to hear or see in the outer ring, some merely thrust their recorders in his general direction as they looked around for new quarry.

"If you're not in the interview, guys," yelled a police officer guarding the chamber, "I need you to get back behind the rope."

Sport and theater

A legislative year packed with suspenseful votes and a 21st-century premium on incremental news have combined to create an extraordinarily active scrum season.

The scrum get its name from the huddle scrummage of rugby players. The congressional variety is part living civics lesson, part sport and part theater, with media players surrounding marquee names from the leadership, as well as the lawmakers outside their party's ideological mainstream whose votes are coveted in a bitterly divided body.

Some senators bask in the scrum. For example, Olympia Snowe, the moderate Republican from Maine who has flirted with joining Democrats on health-care and regulation reform, spends half an hour at a time inside its warm embrace, calmly explaining policy points until she wears the reporters, or their recorders' batteries, down. Nelson has sought to explain himself in scrums so large that his colleagues raise their eyebrows as they sidestep their way to the elevators. Before he decided to lie low during the financial regulation legislation process, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York often exhibited his mastery of the perfect sound bite.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used to bathe in the coffee-breathed questions of the scrum, but these days he is more likely to join Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.S.C.) in an I'm-walking-and-talking-with-my-colleague beeline into and out of the chamber. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has so often repeated "I actually do most of my press with the Minnesota press" that no one really bothers with him anymore.

As undignified a spectacle as the scrum can be, it holds within it a deep well of legislative knowledge and judgment, and contains its own hierarchy. There are the deans -- Carl Hulse of the New York Times, David Espo of the Associated Press, David Rogers of Politico. Then there are the seasoned workaday scribes from the Hill, Roll Call, the news wires, who patrol the floor in search of a vulnerable senator separated from the pack. There are the unfamiliar faces, the newbies, feature writers or suburban radio anchors here to pick up a quick quote, because any accredited journalist can join the extended, if dysfunctional, scrum family. ("Welcome back to the scrum," one reporter on the perimeter of a recent cluster greeted another after a prolonged absence.)

The stakeout

After the scrum surrounding Nelson scattered, some reporters retreated to the rope while others headed right to the Senate Reception Room, where senators conduct private interviews with trusted reporters. Others went left to lie in wait at the foot of the sweeping Tennessee-marble staircase, where foot traffic has worn the floral designs and Greek key patterns off the yellow Minton tiles.

In the resettling, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, another conservative Democrat, who is facing a tough reelection campaign, tried to slip by.

"Phew," she said as she pressed the down button of the elevator.

She spoke too soon. The reporters caught up with her before the car arrived.

"What do you think of Nelson's position?" a reporter in the scrum asked. She took a deep breath, stared at the reporters with wide eyes and started to talk when the doors slid open. But she had to wait as Sens. Barbara Boxer, Joe Lieberman, Claire McCaskill and Jay Rockefeller emptied out of the elevator. The reporters, their tape recorders pointed, waited, too.

"Where have you guys been?" Lincoln said instead to her colleagues. Then she dove into a corner of the elevator.

But she wasn't in the clear yet. Some reporters staked out the basement, where the senators board trains to the Russell, Dirksen and Hart buildings.

With the pack

Eventually the vote drew to an end and the scrum still hadn't gotten its most pressing question answered: Would Democrats stay the whole night to force Republicans to allow a vote? The reporters needed someone from the leadership. They got it when Dick Durbin, the majority whip, walked out of the chamber.

McGrane dashed after him, and Durbin pretended to dash away. Then he stopped and smiled. The scrum packed in between busts of Nelson Rockefeller and Walter Mondale and asked whether there was the prospect of an all-nighter.

"Yes," Durbin said, adding that Democrats were willing to keep the session open "all night long. Dawn to dusk to dawn." Someone asked whether Nelson, the senator from Nebraska who seemed to have received special consideration for his health-care vote, was going to get another "Cornhusker Carve-Out."

"Oh man, you are drinking the Fox Kool-Aid," Durbin joked.

"Haaay," the scrum bristled. But they loved it.

"Do you have 51 votes on the Dodd bill in its current form?" asked David Drucker of Roll Call.

"Yes," said Durbin, who looked at the scrum and added, "I have a question to ask you. How do I escape?"

And with that, the scrum graciously parted and released the senator from its grasp.

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