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Congress, Having a Ball at the White House

Monday was a work day for Congress, but the first order of business was making sure senators and representatives got to the White House congressional holiday ball, a festive event hosted by a president not a few lawmakers regularly accuse of treason.

The House gaveled in at noon, called to order by Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala. He recognized Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who spoke for a few minutes about President Barack Obama’s Sunday night address from the Oval Office, accusing him of using “this terrible tragedy to renew his call for tougher gun restrictions,” among other things. The House then recessed and at around 2 p.m. came out of its slumber to hear the chaplain’s prayer and say the Pledge of Allegiance. There were some more speeches (about Pearl Harbor, climate change, the terrorist watch list, etc.) and some housekeeping before the chamber adjourned around 4 p.m. There were no votes. Plenty of time to get to the evening soiree.  

Over in the Senate, they cut it a little close, which might have been why the last senator to preside over the chamber that day, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., was already in his tuxedo and ready to decamp to the black-tie affair.  

President Pro Tem Orrin G. Hatch called the chamber to order at 2 p.m. There was a prayer, the pledge, senators spoke on a variety of topics (Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called for a czar to fight the Islamic State, for instance), then senators confirmed a judicial nominee (Travis McDonough), and two executive nominees (Kenneth Ward and Linda Etim) before adjourning at 6:05 p.m. Lankford brought the gavel down and lawmakers were free to traverse Pennsylvania Avenue at rush hour to make it to the executive mansion.  

Among the approximately 400 members attending the annual ball were Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., who had also harshly criticized President Barack Obama’s Sunday night address on terrorism.  

Speaking to radio personality Michael Medved, Ryan said, “I think the president lost an opportunity — missed an opportunity — with an Oval Office address to actually deliver and describe a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS, to finish ISIS off. What I heard was more of a defense of what he had been doing for a long time, and we’ve been doing this for 16 months with predictable results.”  

Other Obama antagonists in attendance at the ball were Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who is running for the Republican nomination for president, and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., a vociferous critic of the administration.  

During Vitter’s gubernatorial run this year, he painted his opponent, Democrat John Bel Edwards, as an Obama crony in order to curry favor with Louisiana voters. Vitter lost that election last month and subsequently announced he would retire from the Senate after his term expires next year. This may have been the last chance he has to attend a White House holiday ball, given the administration’s willingness to cancel such events. (The picnic is a frequent target, and Obama skipped the holiday ball in December 2013, after Nelson Mandela died, so he could attend the funeral in South Africa.)  

Other members in attendance include another presidential candidate, Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and a pair of Republican senators in tough 2016 re-election races, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Rob Portman of Ohio.  

No official numbers of those who attended were available, though. “We leave it up to Members to decide for themselves if they want to share that,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.  

John T. Bennett contributed to this report. 

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