Updated 12 p.m., with Van Hollen’s comments on Ryan’s absence.

Of all the galas in all the towns in all the world, the Children’s Inn 25th anniversary dinner landed on the first night of the government shutdown. Since the event was founded by congressional spouses to transcend politics for a greater good. . . well, kind of ironic, huh?

“It has to be some night and it happens to be this night,” NPR’s Cokie Roberts told us. “I suppose, if anything, it could be somewhat healing.”

Francis Collins, Debbie Dingell, Sen. Roy Blunt, Abby Blunt and Sen. Pat Toomey at the Children's Inn gala. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)
Francis Collins, Debbie Dingell, Sen. Roy Blunt, Abby Blunt and Sen. Pat Toomey at the Children’s Inn gala. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)

What’s the politically-correct shutdown party etiquette? Roberts was already well-versed in how to juggle a dinner program after many years of emceeing the event. Even under normal circumstances, politicians are notorious for showing up late or not at all, she said. “It’s awful. ‘He’s coming. He’s not coming.’ You’re vamping all night long.”

But this year was different. After the shutdown officially went into effect, lawmakers and guests began canceling on Tuesday night’s left and right. (It was a similar scene Monday at the gala for pro-Israel group J Street, where members of Congress left empty chairs and half-eaten salad courses.)

Kathleen Sebelius with Francis Collins. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post) Kathleen Sebelius with Francis Collins. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)

Children’s Inn gala co-chair Rep. Paul Ryan pulled out early in the day. But after a vote delay, Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) showed up. Van Hollen told the crowd that Ryan “has taken the position he will not be seen at any public event” for the duration of the shutdown.

And Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) hit their marks, joining the 350 guests who streamed into the Mellon Auditorium. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius turned up in time to address the crowd: “I can’t imagine a place I’d rather be tonight than with all of you at a very important gala.”

NIH Director Francis Collins greeted the lawmakers with some furlough small talk. “No strong arming,” he assured us.

“Just look sad,” advised Blunt.

The gala, a model for bipartisan cooperation, was founded 25 years ago by well-connected political wives — Debbie Dingell, Chris Downey, Carmala Walgren — to raise funds for free housing for families of sick kids participating in clinical trials at NIH.

The women brought in other power spouses over the years (Marianne Gingrich, Paul Pelosi, Tony Morella, Karyn Frist, Jane Gephardt, Cecile Tauzin, Abby Blunt, Martha-Ann Alito) and have raised millions for the inn. This week’s gala was expected to gross $500,000.

NIH patient Keller Lai, age 9, from Oklahoma, with his father Lothar Lai. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)

“Sick children don’t know if people are Republican or Democrats,” said Dingell, who co-chaired the dinner with Blunt.

But the shutdown put another damper on the party: NIH director Francis Collins said Tuesday that three-quarters of his staff was furloughed, which means about 200 patients slated for clinical trials — including 30 kids with cancer — will be turned away.

That’s exactly what the pols need to hear, said Roberts. “There are a whole lot of people who really are in need. It’s not just a game. These are real people with real problems. So get it together, guys. The grownups in the room will be the children.”

Earlier: Greek prime minister Antonis Samaris misses party, National Gallery exhibit, due to shutdown

Kennedy Center’s lucky pre-shutdown timing: Makeover for concert hall, NSO black-tie gala


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