The young woman with jet-black hair and a turquoise pantsuit wove her way through the ornate lobby of the Warner Theatre, greeting friends at the open bar as comedians needled guests of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Joan Kato, 23, cocked her head. She knew half the people in the room.
In her bag was a spotted, stuffed green monkey and a souvenir photograph of herself with the Jack Russell terrier from TV's "Frasier." Both were gifts from her last stop, the Animal Health Institute's annual Pet Night Reception on Capitol Hill. Next on her agenda: dinner with a friend who works in government affairs for Heineken.
"I would have liked to have gone to the pets reception, then the California Restaurant Association event at Charlie Palmer Steak and then comedy night," said Kato, a scheduler with Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill). "But I was with a friend who had to get here early."
Oh, the choices.
The juggling that comes with savvy navigation of Washington's political reception circuit is serious business. For underpaid Hill staffers who hit four or five functions a night, it might be the only square meal of the day. For members of Congress and their senior staffs, it's a way to exercise clout, repay favors and raise money. In a town where staying well-connected is the primary currency, receptions are the bank.
With Congress back in session and the last fundraising deadline before the election creeping up at the end of the month, September is stuffed with receptions: political fundraisers, trade and industry gatherings and cultural heritage events. There are goody bags, boat cruises, ice cream socials and karaoke, but working the circuit is just that -- work.
"It's not necessarily about fun," said David Urban, a former chief of staff for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and a principal with the American Continental Group, which raises money and lobbies Congress on behalf of Republican clients. "Everybody who sponsors a reception has an agenda, whether you're dropping by to receive an award or going to hear someone's position on the Patriot Act or on library funding."
The calculus for figuring out which events to attend goes something like this: Are there people that I need to see or people who need to see me, as a senior congressional staff member or as a lobbyist? What else is going on that night? Is it something to which I need to bring my member of Congress? Where am I going to see the most constituents?
"People think the best lubrication for a party is liquor, but in Washington, it's not. It's money," said Meredith McGehee, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns and a former chief lobbyist for Common Cause.
Groups honor members of Congress with awards to ensure their attendance. Lobbyists attending fundraisers for members of Congress whose committees oversee legislation important to their clients give generously and make sure they get to shake hands. Junior members of Congress hope that such senior members as House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) drop by, to prove to lobbyists that the junior members have juice.
"We're all politicians here. We all have the same need to impress our constituencies," said McGehee, who worked as a legislative director and legislative aide on the Hill in the '80s.
When universities, trade groups, cities and nonprofit organizations try to impress Congress, it's called creating goodwill and building awareness. It could be the Texas Credit Union League, the American College of Rheumatology or the ambassador of Taiwan enticing legislative staffers with Mongolian barbecue.
"Sometimes it means pulling the congressman out of a meeting, popping in, shaking hands and moving on," said Jeff Mendelsohn, chief of staff for Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez (D-Tex.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "We talk about politics, Hill business, sometimes we talk about the Dallas Cowboys. If we're in session late, sometimes that's dinner."
Political fundraisers are more partisan but just as varied. Donors can support their favorite members of Congress by joining them for a Redskins game, cocktails on the terrace of 101 Constitution, a photo op with Vice President Cheney, a bass fishing tournament or a pheasant hunt. Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) invites supporters to the circus. Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) plays guitar for them.
Between Tuesday and Thursday nights -- when members of Congress are most likely to be on the Hill -- there were 45 Republican fundraisers and 51 Democratic fundraisers last week. The week before, there were 35 grip-and-grins for Republicans and 12 for Democrats on Tuesday alone.
"This is the last wringing of the wet towel to get all the water out," said David Rehr, chief lobbyist for the National Beer Wholesalers Association, which will sponsor a popular Oktoberfest on Capitol Hill next month. Politicians heading into local elections like to brandish their latest Federal Election Commission filings to show how serious they are.
Trade and industry groups understand that a reception's geography is crucial. Getting members of Congress to attend a party amid late-night votes, committee meetings and a flurry of other functions can be difficult. Proximity to Capitol Hill is essential, whether it's Tortilla Coast, La Colline or the Capitol Hill Club -- which offers members two-pound Maine lobsters on Mondays.
Lobbyists like to stay within eyeshot of Capitol Hill, too. "If you have to get in a cab or a car, you're going home," Rehr said. "You kind of triangulate your schedule to hit as many events as possible with the least distance involved."
With all the competition, party planners combat reception fatigue with gimmicks. Invitations come packed with glitter or on cards that play "God Bless America" over and over (until smashed with a stapler). Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, a New York Republican who represents Cooperstown, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, is known for his baseball-themed fundraisers at the American Legion Post, now in their ninth year. More than 150 supporters showed up Tuesday night and were offered hot dogs, popcorn or, for $10, a baseball autographed by Hall of Famer Bob Feller.
"Every night on Capitol Hill, there are dozens of fundraisers. Everybody does the same thing, sitting around eating finger food wishing they were elsewhere," said Boehlert, a 22-year veteran of the Hill. "I said, 'I don't want to fall into this trap.' "
Nancy Bocskor, whose company plans the baseball party, said donors were tired of cold quiche and rubber chicken.
"They may like Congressman Boehlert and want to support him, but we certainly up our attendance by enabling lobbyists to get to meet with their favorite baseball players," Bocskor said.
Less than three blocks from Boehlert's fundraiser, the American Frozen Food Institute scarcely needed to advertise its Frozen Food Filibuster Reception in the Cannon House Office Building.
But it wasn't just hungry Hill staffers who milled about the historic third-floor Caucus Room, sipping merlot and sampling seared scallops with roasted corn, shrimp in cocktail sauce, lasagna, chocolate cake and quesadillas.
Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, stopped by for seven or eight minutes before he, too, had to race off to another reception.
"We're responsible for any chemical, biological, nuclear attack and anything that adversely impacts the food supply I'm very concerned about," Thompson said as he rushed out of the building into a waiting car.
"Because we import so much food from around the world, I like to stay in touch with the industry to find out how we're doing."
Like Thompson, young Hill staffers are sometimes on the scene to press the flesh.
"You're not just networking for yourself but for your office," said Diana Ramirez, a scheduler for Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.), who like other young staffers helps push "dear colleague" letters when her boss needs a co-sponsor for a bill.
"I'll call someone and say: 'Remember me? We met at happy hour or this reception. Can you get your boss to sign on?' It's much easier than calling an office and asking for whoever handles veterans affairs," Ramirez said.
Swapping ideas and trading rumors is also important for lobbyists, said Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which will host its first congressional reception this month.
In a previous job, Tipton worked for an endocrinologist. "Someone told me about a very prominent member of the Senate Appropriations Committee whose spouse had thyroid disease," Tipton said.
"You know that senator is going to be open to trying to help those with thyroid disease."
Kato, the scheduler who attended the Pet Night Reception, remembered the event's corn bread muffins and frosted animal-shaped cookies. But she doesn't work the reception circuit just for the food.
"I have to be seen there, at some of these events, to represent my boss, and I go to hang out with friends because it'll be fun. And the gifts might be fun," Kato said.
"I don't go for the food. Most of the time it's not all that great. I could go on a date and go to any restaurant in town and not have to hear a speech."
Holding a goody from a previous event, Joan Kato makes her way into a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute party.