Senate Frosh Cope With Tight Temporary Quarters

Posted January 23, 2009 at 5:48pm

Freshman Sen. Mark Warner’s conference room sits outside his office, a few chairs clustered at the end of a basement hallway of beige carpets and bare white walls.

Inside the Virginia Democrat’s temporary office in the Dirksen basement, there’s no space for such luxuries; already, about 20 staffers squeeze into three small rooms, their desks sometimes inches apart.

The cramped space is a rite of passage for every new Member of the Senate, where it can take months to get a permanent office. Officials handle office moves one-by-one, making their way down the Senate seniority list and giving each Senator a chance to upgrade offices.

This year, a large class of new Senators and a few dragged-out races further complicated — and slightly delayed — the process. In fact, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee had to find extra places to stow nine newly elected Senators and two newly appointed ones.

Officials have made about half the room assignments and are just starting actual office moves, Rules and Administration Committee spokesman Howard Gantman said.

In the meantime, new Senators are stuck in their temporary digs until about March.

Warner is one of five in Dirksen Room B40, a collection of rooms off a single hallway that resembles a sterile doctor’s office.

Julie Edwards, spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), another freshman, said giving directions can get a little confusing.

“You always feel weird saying the room number because we’re in DB40B,” she said. “It’s like saying WD-40.”

Nevertheless, Edwards and other staffers said constituents have been able to find their way. Several staffers also said the close quarters build camaraderie between staffers and Senators.

Sen. Mark Udall’s (D-Colo.) staff finds a certain appealing intimacy to the temporary digs.

“All the staff knows each other and Sen. Udall’s cousin is right around the corner,” spokeswoman Tara Trujillo said. “If he’s not in his office, we know he’s probably wandered down to Sen. Tom Udall’s.”

The Colorado Democrat is in Room B40E, one of the first offices in the corridor. Cardboard boxes, plastic crates, piles of paper and the occasional bag of chips are crammed between desks. The staff has tried to make the tight space more inviting by putting plants in every corner and adorning the walls with pictures of Colorado.

Over in the Russell Senate Office Building, however, the two new Republican Senators have a little more to work with. Housed in a trailer in the building’s courtyard, their offices seem bigger, with regal red carpet throughout.

They also get windows, through which they can catch a glimpse of fallen leaves, the edge of a parking lot or a green plastic picnic chair. There are doors to the outside, too — which don’t open.

Kyle Hines, spokesman for Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), said the office isn’t bad, but “at the same time, space is at a premium.”

Gantman said the committee put Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) in a room that was used to showcase the new furniture for the remodeling of Hart offices.

On the eighth floor of Hart in 825C, Begich perhaps got the best deal of the freshman class. Though somewhat small, the office has floor-to-ceiling windows and the committee’s new-looking display furniture.

On a recent visit to the office, staffers were overwhelmingly positive — “It’s palatial!” one exclaimed — though Begich jokingly downplayed its virtues.

“Don’t go saying it’s too nice up here,” he said, before squeezing past a table in his small office and sitting down to a meeting.

Officials have placed some of the new Senators in sections of abandoned rooms. Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) is in an anteroom of former Colorado GOP Sen. Wayne Allard’s old office on the fifth floor of Dirksen, while Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) has what looks like a conference room in the Dirksen basement.

Despite the small spaces, staffers were hesitant to complain — it’s enough, they said, to be working in the Senate at all.

“As long as we can get the job done, we’re going to continue working hard,” said Sarah Pompei, spokeswoman for Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), who shares the Russell trailer with Risch. “It’s not the most glamorous space, but we’ve got our conference room and everyone has a computer and is able to be working.”

Paul Singer contributed to this report.