The conclusion of any session of Congress is never a pretty sight. But the waning days of the 101st, with its near-constant infighting over the budget, has been uglier than most.
The see-saw battle over spending and taxes over the past two weeks has frayed the nerves and tempers of lawmakers, Capitol Hill staff, journalists and lobbyists alike, all of whom are beginning to look and act like survivors of a legislative death march.
It has also produced its share of humor, much of it of the gallows variety.
On the recent weekend when the government was forced to shut down because Congress had not completed its budget work and President Bush had vetoed a stopgap spending bill, for example, the following joke made the rounds:
Congress, all 535 members, was on a boat cruise on the Potomac when a sudden storm came up and capsized the vessel. Who was saved? Answer: The American people.
The humor also has a lexicographical dimension. House Republicans, whose fury at the Democrats has sometimes been matched by their fury at themselves and at White House budget negotiators John H. Sununu and Richard G. Darman, have a new term for this season of fiscal horrors in which the GOP has been portrayed as coddlers of the rich. They are saying that "Darmageddon" has arrived.
If Republicans favor new words, Democrats are coining new acronyms. Referring to a Republican budget plan that fell short of the $500 billion deficit-reduction goal and was not allowed to be presented to the House, Democrats called the no-new-tax proposal the Conservative Republican Alternative Package.
But this budget season has gone on so long and so nastily that even humor is running thin as lawmakers and their staffs long for adjournment. Asked to supply some anecdotes yesterday, an aide to House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said simply: "Nothing is funny anymore."
In fact, the combination of high political stakes, too much work, too little sleep, too much bad food and too little family time has produced more than the usual amount of acrimony under the stately dome of the Capitol.
For a brief moment yesterday, for example, it appeared that fisticuffs might break out on the floor of the House in the aftermath of some intemperate comments by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), usually one of the most gentlemanly of lawmakers.
What set off Hyde was a mocking speech on the floor by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of the House's most slashing wits. Frank, with feigned horror, said the security system in the House had obviously broken down and allowed someone to pose as Republican leader Michel. There had to be an imposter loose, said Frank, because the same Michel who Tuesday night urged rejection of a budget resolution with tax increases had 10 days ago, according to his reading of the Congressional Record, urged adoption of a budget resolution with tax increases.
Rising to Michel's defense, Hyde chided Frank for not being on the floor for the GOP leader's original speech. Frank, said Hyde, was probably in the House gym, "doing whatever he does when he's in the gymnasium."
That remark harkened back to one of the uglier, and disproven, accusations against Frank during the investigation by the House ethics committee of Frank's relationship with a male prostitute. The prostitute had alleged that he and Frank had engaged in sex in the House gym.
Hyde eventually apologized and asked that his comments be stricken from the record, but not before Reps. Craig Washington (D-Tex.) and Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.) almost squared off in an aisle as Washington rushed to the GOP side to talk privately with Hyde.
If $500 billion in deficit reduction is bad news for taxpayers and those who depend on government services, it is good news for button makers. Every year at this time they sprout like spring flowers on Capitol Hill.
A popular button for the past few weeks suggests a horrifying possibility: A lame duck session of Congress after the Nov. 6 election. The button pictures a duck sporting a leg cast with a red slash through it.
Buttons, like jokes, appear out of nowhere and with remarkable speed. A day after Bush, during a jog, answered reporters' questions about his latest position on taxes by saying "Read my hips" and pointing to his posterior, Democrats produced a button that read, "Kiss your hips goodbye."
The needs of the small army of budget reporters who have been covering this mess through the summit at Andrews Air Force Base ("Camp Run-a-Mok" in Rep. Silvio Conte's memorable phrase) and through the recent gyrations in the Capitol, don't always match those of their journalistic quarry.
But with all parties suffering equally from sleep deprivation, strained relations with families, and a virulent strain of flu making the rounds, sometimes the pursued take pity on the pursuers.
Heather Foley, the wife of House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), shows her compassion by frequently ordering pizza for the journalists during their long nighttime vigils.
And even Sununu, the White House chief of staff who regards the press as a particularly low form of life, has demonstrated the milk of human kindness.
During one late-night session in Foley's office, Sununu emerged into the nearby Rayburn Room and poured coffee for the weary pack of budget reporters.
But, said Sununu, if anyone reported the gesture, he'd deny it.