Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) spent hours, maybe even days, hammering out the details of the carefully crafted agreement.
The negotiations, completed earlier this spring, weren’t about funding, however, but something equally valuable: a prime private office in the Capitol.
Cochran had been eyeing the office vacated by now-retired Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) when the biennial scramble for the coveted “hideaways” began earlier this year.
The 70-odd offices, located throughout the Capitol’s north end, are distributed to Senators based on their seniority in the chamber. And Hollings, who was the fourth-most senior Senator when he retired at the end of the 108th Congress, had one of the best.
“I was asking Sen. [Trent] Lott [R-Miss.], who is now chairman of the Rules Committee, if he had any spaces from some of the senior, most senior Members, who are retiring, and I said, ‘Fritz Hollings must have a nice one,’” Cochran recalled in an interview held inside his newly acquired hideaway.
When Cochran set his sights on moving into Hollings’ former digs on the Capitol’s second floor — the office features a beautiful view of the West Front and the Mall — he ran into a major obstacle: He ranked 12th in overall seniority, not high enough to ensure the office would be his.
Further emphasizing the value of longevity, Lott informed Cochran that another, more senior Senator might be interested in the space: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), No. 10.
“He said, ‘Well, Sen. Hatch has indicated he would like to look at spaces.’ So I said, ‘Well, he might like mine, it’s a lot bigger.’”
Hatch accepted the proposal, moving into Cochran’s old office, which is much larger but windowless, and the Mississippian moved into Hollings’ former office, which has one of the best views of Washington.
“It’s a great view, unless the late afternoon sun is shining in because it is truly the West Front,” Cochran said. He also recalled a humorous anecdote about two offices a little higher than his own.
The Majority Leader’s suite is located directly above Cochran’s new hideaway, giving it a slightly better view of the Mall. One day, when then-Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) hosted President Ronald Reagan, he informed the president that he had “the grandest view in Washington,” to which Reagan responded, “Howard, I think it’s the second-best view; I have the best view in Washington.”
Cochran said that is one thing he always remembers when he looks out of his window: “It’s not the best view in Washington, but it’s close.”
Cochran quickly made himself at home in his newfound hideaway. The office’s walls are lined with memorabilia, paintings and pictures, including one of a special significance: a large portrait of his grandson Samuel Clayton Cochran.
“That was taken when he was 2 years old. He’s 4 now,” the Senator revealed with a smile on his face. “He has a little brother that is going to be 2 in November. I’ve gotten his parents to agree that we’ll have a portrait of him, same size, and I will be able to put it” directly across from the elder grandson’s. “I told my son and his wife that I was going to hang their sons’ portrait in the United States Capitol. … It has a nice ring to it.”
For some Senators, a hideaway is a place to get away from the press and the rigors of being a lawmaker. But Cochran gets much more out of his.
“This is a working office,” he explained. “I come here because I have access to my computer. I use my computer for messages with staff members; I have offices in Mississippi, so I’m accessible to all the members of my staff.”
There is an even better place to hide if you are a Senator and want to get away, Cochran said. Behind the Senate chamber lies a “reading room with leather couches and chairs and newspapers from across the country. That’s where I go to hide, because no one has access to that room, except Senators and pages,” Cochran said. “So the chairs are comfortable, there is no telephone that’s going to ring, there is no temptation to send or receive a message.”
Others Stay Put
Aside from Cochran’s orchestrated swap, however, few senior Senators opted to trade in their Capitol offices for new digs.
The slow turnover is the result, at least in part, of few major exits at the conclusion of the 108th Congress. In addition to Hollings, only ex-Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) — then ranked 19th in seniority — gave up prime office space, and those two openings weren’t enough to set off a chain reaction.
Alaska GOP Sen. Ted Stevens (the new No. 4), New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici (No. 5) and Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy (No. 7) all declined to move, paving the way for the Hatch-Cochran deal.
Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), who ranks sixth on the seniority list, also elected to keep his office, which he snagged in 2003 after then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) retired.
Biden’s first-floor hideaway — which once housed both Sens. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) and Bill Roth (R-Del.) — features ornate ceilings, a chandelier and one much-coveted amenity, a full bathroom.
“It’s beautiful,” a Biden spokesman said of the office.
Indiana Republican Sen. Dick Lugar’s hideaway likewise boasts a bathroom, but an aide said it is the office’s location on the third floor that prompted the ninth-most senior Senator to keep his current space.
“It’s very close to getting down to the floor to vote,” the aide said.
An aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) confirmed the No. 2 most senior Member will continue to inhabit his third-floor hideaway near the Senate Radio-TV Gallery. The spacious office features an excellent view of the National Mall and is decorated with family memorabilia.
Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords (I), ranked No. 30 in seniority, similarly declined an offer to move from the ground-floor hideaway he has occupied for four years.
“The Senator is very happy with the place he’s got,” said Jeffords’ spokeswoman Diane Derby, who added the space has a “great view” of the West Front while being “cozy and quaint.”
Among the handful of Senators who did accept invitations to upgrade their space are Utah Sen. Bob Bennett (R), 42nd in seniority and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), 43rd.
Hutchison moved into the hideaway last used by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who holds the 36th spot. Feinstein’s office confirmed the move but did not have any specifics to share.
An aide to Hutchison said the office, like her previous abode, does not have windows but does offer more space.
Bound to the Basement
Despite occupying some of the Capitol’s less-than-desirable spaces, several more junior Senators likewise elected to pass up the opportunity to move, noting their offices, often located on the basement level, are still convenient.
Among those, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), No. 47 in seniority, declined to move out of his current basement office in the Capitol’s northwest corner, which an aide described as “utilitarian” and “pretty plain.”
A spokesman for Sen. Craig Thomas (R), 48th in the seniority rankings, similarly described the Wyoming lawmaker’s basement digs, stating: “It’s pretty simple in there.”
The office features a couch, coffee table, computer and numerous bookshelves.
“It’s a space he utilizes when it’s a particularly pressing reason to escape down there,” the aide added, noting that the lawmaker has used it during the recent presidential inauguration as well as during the State of the Union address.
One step down the list at No. 49, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) will also keep the hideaway assigned to him in 2003.
The Republican Conference chairman moved into the basement office after his East Front hideaway became inaccessible due to construction of the Capitol Visitor Center.
“It’s convenient,” Santorum spokeswoman Christine Shott said of the windowless space. “He’s able to hold meetings there … and it’s a nice space.”
(Entering the 109th Congress, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist ranked at No. 50 on the seniority list, which would appear to make him eligible for a hideaway slot — leadership posts don’t factor into seniority calculations — but a spokeswoman said the Tennessee Republican does not currently occupy one of the offices.)
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), 54th in overall seniority, said he would also hold onto his hideaway space, noting it is “conveniently located” near elevators and easily accessed from his Minority Whip office in the Capitol.
Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), ranked 61st, 66th and 67th, respectively, also elected to keep their current offices.
Other Senate lawmakers are, of course, less than willing to discuss their Capitol real estate, acknowledging only that they occupy one of the coveted spaces but declining to give out details.
“We don’t call them ‘hideaways,’” chided Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who ranks at No. 23, when asked about her own space. “We call them Capitol offices.”
Similarly, an aide to North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan (No. 37) replied to a request about the Senator’s coveted space by stating: “We don’t discuss the hideaway.”