From the moment the House of Representatives started its business at noon yesterday, it was clear most of the members were not especially happy to be here.
For one thing, most senators had decided to go elsewhere for the weekend, leaving a lopsidedly empty feeling to the Capitol. Worse, with the sun shining out beyond the dark corridors of legislative power and the voters waiting for a deal on the federal budget, a kind of sourness settled over congressional proceedings.
Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R-Iowa), who is challenging Sen. Tom Harkin (D) this year, expressed it in a moment of exasperation on the House floor at the beginning of the session: "Where is the Senate? They are not in session."
Suggesting that senators were around the weekend when President Bush shut down the government for lack of funds, Tauke noted that senators -- including the one he is campaigning against -- were goofing off this weekend after Bush agreed to give the Congress a few more days to pass a budget by signing a stopgap measure to fund the government through 12:01 a.m. Thursday.
"If the president doesn't hold their feet to the fire, they go out and are gone," Tauke said.
Some senators were working in the Capitol, but they were mostly invisible. Clusters of conferees -- meeting to resolve differences in House and Senate legislation on subjects such as clean air and the budget -- were spread out in private rooms around the building.
Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), loping through the hallways on his way to one of those gatherings, hissed at reporters and asked what was going on. "It's a goddam plot," he said. Then he was gone.
Some negotiations were carried out on the phone or by fax machine as members tried to play tennis or ride horses or simply escape the gloomy irritability that seems to have settled over the nation's legislature.
One midwestern congressman, on hearing that some senators were in Virginia's horse country for the weekend, fumed: "If I went back home and rode around on a white horse, they'd shoot the horse first and then me."
For those who were on the job, physically, there was also the frustration that the "real action," whatever it was, seemed always to be at some later time and at some other place in the Capitol complex.
"There is a great hunger up here for an event, a happening, that never really occurs," said an aide to the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. "Ultimately the deal is done with an exchange of papers and private conversations. In the end it is much closer to a whimper than a bang."
Some members of Congress, such as Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), said they are beginning to sense a new concern among voters about the budget maneuverings that have so obsessed Washington in the last few weeks.
After worrying about benefits first and then taxes, voters are starting to show irritation at the whole process, he said.
"In the final measure, we are seeing a lot of concern in the public not about what the package is, but they just want us to get it done," Leach said.
Even the tourists sensed the cranky mood of the budget debate.
As he waited in line to see House members at work, computer repairman Wayne Wilkinson of Athens, Ga., expressed what appeared to be the view of many standing around him.
"They need to get their act together," Wilkinson said, as others murmured their approval. "If they don't, the guys who come in after them will."
"I'm disgusted, upset," said Kris Meyer, a fourth-grade teacher from Cottage Grove, Minn. She offered a suggestion to cut the deficit: "Start with their salaries."
As another long weekend day seemed destined to close without a resolution to the budget impasse, some members found moments of relief were as close as the nearest television set, which carried such college football games as Michigan vs. Iowa and Miami vs. Notre Dame.
"When you hear the cheers around here, they aren't for what's going on on the floor," said one Democratic aide.
Maybe it was a coincidence, as several veterans of the budget process noted yesterday, but the House finished its business before dark -- and before the end of the Miami-Notre Dame game.