At lunchtime Tuesday, James Bane and his wife, Jodie, entered the Capitol Visitor Center. It was empty. Hundreds of unused audio-tour headphones hung from racks like a haul of black squids, and three Capitol Police officers looked silently at one another across the vast marble lobby. The Banes bore the bewildered expressions of accidental trespassers who had taken a wrong turn into a restricted area, and they shuffled, almost apologetically, around the velvet ropes. There was no one else in line. They walked through the Senate Gallery check-in, where listless staff members watched a CNN screen that read “Punting on Fiscal Trouble.” The channel’s “Debt Ceiling Deadline” countdown clock showed 34 hours, 11 minutes and 38 seconds. ¶ “We’re sightseeing,” said Bane, who was in town from Morgantown, W.Va., for the National Electrical Contractors Association conference. During the morning session, keynote speaker David Gregory, host of “Meet the Press,” assured the gathered electricians that “we are close to a deal.”
But that was all the way back in the morning. By the time the Banes entered the Capitol grounds, the outlines of a shutdown-ending agreement struck by Senate leaders Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had disintegrated in the House, where Republicans instead floated a separate plan that once again called for significant changes to the health-care law — the very demand that has caused the historic gridlock. Democrats said they felt “blindsided,” and the White House discarded the plan as a non-starter. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who is struggling to lead the GOP’s compromise-averse tea party wing, first wouldn’t say whether the plan would move forward. Later in the afternoon, his office said Republicans would offer a new bill. A little bit later, they said they wouldn’t.
“We expected it to be closed,” Bane, goateed and compact, said of the visitor center as he rode the elevator up to the viewing gallery. His wife, who had straight blond hair and wore a pink shirt, a white sweater and brown calf-high boots over her jeans, expressed some regret about not enjoying the sunshine outside. As they passed through a metal detector on the third floor, senators from both parties sought to wash the sour taste of the morning’s setback out of their mouths — and come up with fresh talking points — over lunch.
McConnell, who is so studiously silent that reporters don’t even bother to ask him questions, walked to the Lyndon B. Johnson meeting room behind the elevators. (Moments later, the hard-right Senate Conservatives Fund issued a news release: “Mitch McConnell is working with the Democrats on a plan to fund Obamacare AND raise the debt limit.”) In the minority leader’s quiet wake, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) walked by with don’t-ask-me-anything jazz hands, although no one seemed interested in asking him anything.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was more than happy to talk. He complained to a growing cluster of reporters that it was a bad sign that the House proposal, which he himself thought would go nowhere, was “being condemned before it’s even seen.” That showed, he said, that the White House is “much more interested in winning than they are in negotiating a settlement.” He said this about a half-dozen times.
Past the marble steps and around the corner, Democrats convened in the Mike Mansfield Room, whose entrance bore a “Do Not Enter” sign. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) walked in briskly, and Reid’s top aide, David Krone, who recently relished leaking e-mails embarrassing to Boehner, walked in leisurely.
While the senators conferred, the Banes found front-row seats among other tourists who sat wordlessly in the gallery like a study-hall class. The only action on the Senate floor consisted of two teenage ushers comparing math homework and playing word games in notebooks. About 15 minutes later, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) walked out of the Democratic luncheon and onto the floor, and took the presiding officer’s chair. As the Banes watched her kill time reading news releases, weekly briefing points and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee updates, more senators spilled out of their lunch meetings into a swarm of waiting reporters.
“We’re absolutely surprised,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We were moving in the right direction, and people were shocked that John Boehner single-handedly killed the momentum.” Around the corner, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) stood in her own circle of reporters, holding an iPad opened to her Twitter account (“your Borrowing Authority is being REVOKED,” @serverfailure wrote her). As she said, urgently, that “we’re dealing with hours, not days, now,” fellow Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.) listened in with a smile plastered on his face. “You didn’t have your recorder out,” a reporter told him as the cluster disbanded. Nelson kept smiling.
Over by the elevators, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) sneaked out of his lunch holding three clementines in his left hand. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who is best known for having a mustache, said, “We want to see if the House will do something.” McCain returned to the exact same spot where he had held court before the lunch and said the exact same things. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), another crowd favorite, stood framed between the gilded doors of elevator S2A. After a few minutes, he decided to let them close, but one reporter stuck in her recorder.
“What was the mood in there?” she asked.
“Good,” Corker deadpanned. The crowd laughed.
As the Banes waited patiently for something to happen, patience wore thin in the surrounding hallways. Reporters crammed toward Don Stewart, McConnell’s aide and surrogate voice, to hear his status update: “We’re going to see what the House’s plan is tonight,” he offered.
In the crush, a photographer had words with a print reporter.
“This must be your first week up here,” he said.
“Actually, it’s my fifth year,” she responded.
“Well, congratulations, you have a long way to go.”
About 2:30, the Banes decided they had seen enough of nothing. As they left the Capitol, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) escorted a large group of constituents toward the frescoes of the Landing of Columbus, the Landing of the Pilgrims and the Declaration of Independence in the Rotunda.
“That’s John Boehner’s office, but keep moving,” Stivers repeated over and over as the group filed by. “I just wanted everybody to see it. You’re doing great. Thanks for being well-behaved.”