Bells shattered the quiet of the early morning on Capitol Hill yesterday, and senators, rubbing sleep from their eyes, dashed to the floor to answer a roll call. The dreaded Friday morning "bed check" votes were starting again.
After nearly two years of catering to the needs and whims of individual senators and their preference for long weekends and frequent recesses, Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) had finally run out of patience.
So he served notice two weeks ago that he was going to crack down on the casual work habits of his colleagues. If the Senate was going to take every fourth week off, at least it could work more than three days of the three weeks that it is ostensibly in session, he noted acerbically.
For a few days, the pace picked up. Then it slowed and finally stalled.
Late Thursday, as the Senate dawdled into the night with little if any discernible progress on a major overhaul of federal housing programs, Mitchell scheduled a 9:30 a.m. Friday vote on a motion to compel the attendance of senators. It took more than a half-hour, but Mitchell eventually flushed out 91 senators, although 15 of them grumpily voted against the motion.
This was the same kind of maneuver that used to drive senators wild when it was employed by former majority leader Robert C. Byrd Jr. (D-W.Va.). Byrd once went so far as to order the arrest of absent senators, resulting in the celebrated midnight capture of Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), who was dragged out of his office and into the chamber, feet first, by the sergeant-at-arms.
Mitchell had been elected to succeed Byrd in 1989 in part because it was assumed he would not resort to such tactics. But with time running out on the 101st Congress and with Republicans moving to block Democratic initiatives in a warmup for this fall's campaign, both Mitchell and his wayward charges were becoming restive.
The Friday morning "bed check" votes, so named by disgruntled Democrats when Byrd was leader, are among the milder disciplinary moves Mitchell has threatened. What may have really gotten his colleagues' attention was his threat to cancel part of their August vacation.
A random sample of sleepy senators yesterday indicates many felt Mitchell's disciplinary moves were welcome, even long overdue.
"I don't blame him," Packwood said. "If we're going take every fourth week off, at least we can work Mondays and Fridays. That's a fair exchange."
"It's not tough enough," said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), who, as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is a member of Mitchell's leadership team. "It's nice to know everyone is here, but everyone was here yesterday and nothing happened."
The problem runs deeper, said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.). In an apparent reference to the long agenda of Democratic initiatives that the Senate faces between now and November, Lugar said that when "there isn't much consensus" on legislation, "ultimately senators will find other things to do. . . . They start leaving the reservation."
Mitchell sees a brighter side. The "bed check" scheduled for yesterday kept enough senators on hand Thursday night to get agreement on a farm bill and contributed to progress yesterday in negotiations on the housing bill, crime legislation and a civil rights compromise.