It's so quiet in the Senate office buildings this week you can hear a sink running somewhere, an elevator door opening two floors down. After weeks of legislative drama, August recess came like a tourniquet, suddenly stopping the constant rush. In one first-floor office, someone is deep into the comics; in another, the staff is perfecting its rubber-band ball.
"The phones are so dead, it's eerie," says a young staffer who is lounging on a leather couch in a reception area in her denim skirt. (Denim! In Dirksen!)
True, unless you are one of the unlucky ones behind an unmarked door on the second floor. These six people are the leading contenders for Washington's Employees of the Month: They've been working until 10 every night, contributing to the office pool to buy a new coffeemaker to keep them up later. Someone in a great hurry just came by to drop off "some stuff" and then get some more stuff from the safe. Two cell phones ring at the same time, and then everyone cheers because a defunct e-mail connection has been restored.
Here, vacation talk is about how the family is going to the beach without you. "It definitely doesn't feel like August," says Helaine Greenfeld, who runs this office, known at the moment as the "central artery" -- a special unit of the 50-member Democratic Judiciary Committee staff where Democrats vet all of President Bush's judicial and executive nominations.
Officially it's the "Noms Unit." It has a Republican equivalent, which is working just as hard to anticipate all the Democrats' moves. For both sides, this is the most intense period since Bush nominated Alberto Gonzales for attorney general. If John G. Roberts Jr., the president's nominee to the Supreme Court, has written or said anything shocking, or has an Anita Hill somewhere in his past, it is the Noms Unit's job to find it before the hearings begin Sept. 6.
"I don't want to tell them it's a marathon, because we don't have that much time. And it's not quite a sprint. Maybe a relay?" Greenfeld says, searching for the best inspirational metaphor to keep her staff of five (and growing) focused on the task.
The staff allowed only a brief review of its operations, and for the most part its members would not speak on the record. But even on the surface, the workload is obvious: Boxes crowd the hallway, four high, two deep, parsing Roberts's life: "Hogan and Hartson," the law firm where he worked; "Solicitor General briefs," from his years working for President George H.W. Bush; "Supreme Court Oral Arguments," from the years he represented clients before the high court.
Binders on a table subdivide categories further into issues: "Affirmative Action," "Civil Rights." In a glass office in back, the "Noms Crack Unit" pores over the papers -- hundreds of thousands of pages' worth, highlighting and sorting as it goes.
The staff here has a necessarily ambivalent relationship with paper. ("Poor trees" is the unofficial office motto.) The current Democratic position on the Roberts nomination can be summarized as "more paper!" -- a unified push to get the administration to release briefs that Roberts wrote while he worked in two Republican administrations.
Last week the White House made its first concession, handing over briefs mostly from Roberts's time as an attorney in the Reagan administration. The papers arrived six hours later than promised, just before dinnertime. Twelve boxes, each holding 15,000 pages, wheeled in on dollies. The committee had requested four copies but got two, which meant a night of photocopying. Reality set in. Two people, a Republican staffer and a Democratic staffer, canceled their vacations. Greenfeld, who normally works four days a week, promised her husband and two kids she'd make it to the beach for part of the time.
They are not really looking for the one golden nugget, or an "aha moment," says Tracy Schmaler, press secretary for the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. Roberts has a reputation as a genial conservative with a nice family and a short history as a sitting judge. The people here say they are looking to flesh out that picture.
Staff members say they read for "voice." Roberts's briefs from the attorney general's office during the Reagan administration, for example, give the impression of a crusading conservative.
Outside the office, however, pressure builds for something sharper. Abortion rights groups have launched a nationwide grass-roots campaign seizing on Roberts's statement that "Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and should be overruled," from a brief he wrote for President George H.W. Bush's administration in a 1991 abortion case. Civil rights groups are angered by positions he took in the Reagan administration advocating that courts be stripped of their power to regulate busing and other attempts at desegregation. Add the environmental groups and death penalty opponents, and the Noms Unit is flooded with phone calls and e-mail pushing it to be strident.
"We, of course, oppose him coming right out of the block," says Nancy Keenan, from NARAL Pro-Choice America, "and we're not fuzzy about that."
But the Noms Unit aims for a more judicious tone. For example, during the course of John Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general, the staffers came across a speech in which Ashcroft called justices "black robed thugs." That would count as an "aha moment."
Ashcroft had left the speech out of the documents he was required to turn in, and some Democrats on the Judiciary Committee argued to make an issue of that. Interest groups lobbied to confront him at the hearings. Some senators on the committee, such as Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), like gotcha-drama in their hearings. Some, like Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat, prefer calmer deliberations.
In the end, committee Democrats alerted Republicans that they were going to use the information, and it became one of several gotcha moments.
Now the Noms Unit is waiting to see if the White House turns over the next set of documents, from Roberts's time as solicitor general during the George H.W. Bush administration.
One staffer notes that the unit has already gone through all the boxes of documents released July 26 and decides it's time for another document dump.
Says Schmaler: "Be careful what you wish for."
The first batch of documents likely won't be the last as the nomination of John G. Roberts to the Supreme Court works its way to the hearing stage.