In a week of closed-door negotiations, the door separates a small A-list from the vast rest of the crowd.
On a sunny afternoon last week, Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas), Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) stood together, their backs to the Capitol. The three were holding a press conference to introduce a new coin honoring the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“There is no greater American sport than baseball,” Barton said. “It transcends politics and generations, and it is what America is all about.”
The few observers gathered around the lectern clapped dutifully.
Meanwhile, across the Dome, Senate Democrats were holed up with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. The scent of catered lunch wafted into the hallway.
Washington might be a town full of insiders, but as Congress and the White House try to broker a delicate deal to raise the debt limit — a process that might (or might not) balance the budget, pay down the nation’s staggering debt and overhaul entitlement programs as we know them — very few are permitted at the negotiating table.
Operating under the adage that too many cooks can spoil the broth, leaders from both parties have simply kept most of their people out of the kitchen. That exclusivity has many lawmakers feeling restless.
“For the rank and file, this is a time of high anxiety,” Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) said. “We’re getting no information other than what we read in the papers, and whatever information we get in the morning might not be operable by the afternoon.”
House leaders canceled the long-planned recess scheduled for this week so lawmakers could focus on the deficit reduction talks. But most Members of Congress are in the unusual position of watching the deficit negotiations from afar, even as they remain in Washington.
Many Members scrapped meetings, barbecues and town halls back in their districts to hang around in D.C.’s humidity for the week. And because the debate is still very much behind closed doors, they’re casting around for things to do.
“I thought we were all going to be up in that big, white house,” Burgess said, lacing his voice with mock chagrin. “I mean, if it’s so important that we be here, I thought we’d all be negotiating.”
Others are trying to exercise patience. Rep. Morgan Griffith said he recognizes the bind that House leaders are in. The Virginia Republican might be a lowly freshman, but as the former Majority Leader in the Virginia House of Delegates, he knows that rank-and-file Members have their place — and it’s not at the negotiating table.
“You can’t have all 435 of us in there,” he said. “I’ve had to broker a lot of deals and then sell them to my caucus, so I understand that.”
Griffith said he’s planning to use the downtime this week to catch up on reading and other office tasks that often fall through the cracks.
The ongoing negotiations on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are fluid and seem to change by the minute. Only a handful of aides and Members are privy to their fluctuations. Is the “grand bargain” definitely dead? What about the “gang of six” talks? And what’s this “holy grail” the White House is asking for?
Few seem to know.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) agrees that the mood among House Members is “dismal” and that he and many of his colleagues would rather be back at home. “We all have a role to play here, though,” he said, although he concedes that the role most Members are playing is a supporting one.
Republican leaders have done a good job of at least listening to their Members so that they feel they are a part of the deal-making, he said.
It’s not that there won’t be any official business in the Capitol this week: Leaders have scheduled votes on legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration and legislative branch appropriations. And House leaders also agreed to give conservatives a vote on the Cut, Cap and Balance bill that they demanded in return for considering an increase to the federal debt limit.
Rep. Jared Polis said his constituents would probably rather have him in Washington while such momentous tasks are at hand than see him back home. “I think they want me here,” the Colorado Democrat said.
But most Members are finding that it’s easy to be out of the loop when the loop is really, really tiny.
During a series of votes Friday, Members circulated around the chamber floor, comparing notes on the injuries they sustained during the previous night’s Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game. A few children of Members darted amid the crowd.
Outside the chamber doors, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) strode down the marble hallway on the way to visit with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Surrounded by a small knot of aides and trailed by a camera crew, he crossed through Statuary Hall and turned into the deep red hallway that leads to the Speaker’s office.
Cantor, at least, was headed inside the door.