Politics & Policy

Sleeping with Harry Reid

The Senate pulls an all-nighter.

12:00 Midnight, July 18With congressional approval ratings at an all-time low, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has made good on his threat to keep the Senate in session overnight to force a historic vote on whether to withdraw almost all U.S. troops in 120 days “change the course” in Iraq. It’s already after midnight and in an inexplicable fit of idealism, I decide that I’m going to be privy to this historic moment. I live five blocks from the U.S. Capitol, and I set off, ignoring the cockroaches scurrying in the lamplight before me, clutching my press pass like a protective talisman, as it is all that separates me from the antiwar protesters that ring the Capitol in Dante-esque levels of insanity.

I see a few dozen Code Pink women, a protest group whose signature feature — ideological or otherwise — consists of dressing like they tried to drink from a Pepto Bismal firehose. I also think there are Quakers by the Supreme Court, come all the way from their office two blocks away — it’s the one with the big sign in the window with the dove that says War is not the answer! (Q: What’s a three-letter word for armed conflict? HEAD EXPLODES.)

The Capitol building is surprisingly empty this time of night; there’s no wait at the metal detector and the first three people I see in the building are Arlen Specter, Chuck Hagel, and David “I Know What You Did Last Summer” Vitter.

Between the elevator, two other sets of metal detectors, and the line to surrender my cell phone to the Sergeant at Arms, actually getting into the gallery above the Senate Chamber is a bit like the intro sequence to Get Smart. But finally I’m able to lord above the swarming senators on the floor, breathing the same rarified air as our elected officials.

Of course, by the time I get in the Senate they are counting votes, but on what I have no idea. Jim Webb currently holds the gavel and is monitoring the count. He looks intense. If Webb furrows his dual-purpose forehead/drive-in movie theater any more, I suspect there will be a Gordian knot between his eyes.

It’s a moment before I find the man of the hour, ghosting his way across the chamber. Majority Leader Harry Reid walks stooped over and looks, well, reedy. Like Webb, his dour, lemon-sucking countenance also seems to match the occasion, but it’s just amazing he’s been able to establish such a formidable political career considering most Americans probably find his entire persona eerily reminiscent of That Guy Who Denied You Your Small Business Loan.

Surprisingly, even at this hour, the majority of people in the Senate visitor’s gallery appear to be young tour groups and high-school kids; I can only imagine what they must think of the spectacle below them. Sure Webb, Reid, and a handful of others look mighty serious, but the vast majority of senators on the floor waiting for the vote count seem far too jovial considering they are deciding the fate of a war. They look like they’re playfully arguing about who’s going to buy the first round of martinis at Capitol Grille when this is all over. Suffice to say, even as a professional cynic, this leaves my faith in democracy shaken and not stirred. May God help the teenagers next to me who are witnessing their government in action for the first time. Remember in your high-school civics class when you first read about how our Founding Fathers in their infinite wisdom used to get roaring drunk and raise their tankards, screaming “May stipenders and pensioners never sit in an American Senate!” Yeah, me neither.

The mystery vote eventually passes. Everyone files out of the gallery at this anti-climatic event. Again, I join a long line to reclaim my cell phone. The man in line behind me says, “So, wait… They voted to vote before 5 A.M. on a possible cloture vote that will happen at 11 A.M.?”

Yup, that’s exactly what happened. With all this crazy excitement, I could stay at the Senate, but why bother? There are moments in life that arrive not as we expect them. Such is tonight. I never thought I would get the call from one of the nation’s premiere political magazines to cover the endgame of the biggest war of my generation. I also never thought that I would ultimately decide the best way tackle such an historic reporting assignment is back at my apartment on a sticky summer night in Washington, basking in the iridescent glow of C-SPAN 2, sweating manfully, and pitching a succession of bottle caps into a wastebasket in the corner of the room. It’s enough to make any self-respecting reporter take their copy of Homage to Catalonia off the shelf and weep.

All that’s left to say is: This is the way the war ends, this is the way the war ends, this is the way the war ends…

1:09 A.M.

I turn on the TV as soon as I get home. Tom Harkin is speaking about the lessons learned from Vietnam. Why it’s now a destination for American cruise ships! “You look back at those 50,000 Americans that died in Vietnam and think ‘what was that all about?’,” says Harkin. Yes, this is exactly the kind of sentiment Vietnam vets love to hear from their leaders. Stopping the spread of Communism, and containing the murderous North Vietnamese regime, which killed more of its own citizens within a few years of the fall of Saigon than were killed in the previous 16 years of conflict on both sides … yes: What was that about? If I were John McCain right now, I would strut straight across the Senate floor and kick Harkin in his grandfatherly crotch.

1:15 A.M.

After a long wind up, Tom Harkin, destroyer of rhetorical worlds, says something to the effect of “patience is not a virtue, but pulling out is no vice.” At first when I heard him say this my ears perked up, because I thought maybe he had wandered so far afield he was quoting one of the more lurid footnotes in The Starr Report. But no, he’s just mangling Barry Goldwater. I also see courtesy the www-dot-interweb, the L.A. Times is running a story in today’s paper headlined: “Pullout proposal lacking a Plan B,” and no, it’s not about contraception either.

1:25 A.M.

More Harkin. He’s now reading constituent letters about the war and based on the repeated phraseology contained therein, I’m pretty sure all of these “constituent letters” opposing the war are part of the latest MoveOn.org letter writing campaign. Harkin’s loping voice and obvious midwesternism does not serve the gravity of the situation well at all. This must be what Prairie Home Companion sounds like in hell.

1:35 A.M.

Is letting Tom Harkin speak this long some sort of filibuster tactic? The only way I could imagine this getting worse is if Harry Reid brings Andy Rooney in. In about five minutes you’d have senators saying, “Gah! I swear I’ll vote to chuck the Constitution in favor of Divine Right if that annoying old man will just stop complaining that there are too many varieties of canned food!”

1:43 A.M.

FINALLY someone other than Harkin takes the floor. John Thune actually tries to discuss the issue and recommends that the Senate give General Petraeus a chance, and wait to review his upcoming report on Iraq. In doing so, Thune says that his support of the war is not “open-ended,” and notes that “I don’t condemn my colleagues for their legitimate Iraq-policy decisions.” He sounds very olive-branchy, very appealing.

1:57 A.M.

Thune is maybe a little too good, because Webb has started playing a little fast and loose with the gavel and floor rules, interrupting him to ask some inane questions about the diversity of opinions on the war within the military. The subtext of this is, near as I can tell, “I, Jim Webb, am a citizen soldier extraordinaire and former career military officer. You are none of these things and are therefore unqualified to speak on such issues.” Thune deftly counters by reminding Webb, that he’s actually visited with soldiers in Iraq and Webb has not.

McCain then gets into the act, by engaging in a fake dialectic with Thune designed to bolster their shared perspective. I do not think it is an effective debating technique, as it sounds something like, “Is the senator from South Dakota aware that General Fauntleroy of the British forces recently said that everything in Al-Anbar is rainbows and lollipops?” Thune doesn’t really know how to respond to McCain’s “help” and I don’t blame him for being confused.

2:04 A.M.

Maria Cantwell takes her turn at the lectern. I would normally think it somewhat sexist to comment on her appearance, except to say the senator from Washington is tall and attractive, and wearing a smartly tailored suit that simply must be mentioned because it is a pale pink that for whatever reason is blinding on TV. I hypothesize that after she’s done speaking, she’s going to join the Code Pink folks on the northern Capitol lawn to reenact metaphorically significant scenes from Carmilla or whatever it is they do that passes for an antiwar protest.

2:05 A.M.

Cantwell begins her speech by reminding everybody at length how many of her constituents are fighting in the war, that there’s a Naval base in Bremerton, Washington, etc. Tom Harkin did the same thing, droning on about the number of Iowa farm boys he knows who’ve given themselves to the war effort. I realize Democrats feel they need to establish their martial bona fides as Republicans have more traditionally aligned themselves with the military, but this is trying way too hard. Cantwell might as well be saying, “Some of my best friends are of the soldierly persuasion. It’s a shame what they do to property values, but I’m learning to accept it when one of them moves into the neighborhood.”

2:10 A.M.

The sporadic floor shots of the Senate show that as the night progresses the herd is thinning. Since this is some kind of sissified filibuster, they’ve laid out cots for members who wish to sleep, and as a bit of a genteel practical joke, Dick Durbin sent out deodorant and toothpaste to all the Senate Republicans.

Earlier in the day, there was some concern that Democrats might not be able to produce a quorum of the necessary 51 senators needed to force an up or down vote on withdrawal. Apparently, the Senate has a procedure for dealing with this eventuality. Talking Points Memo notes that there’s a Senate regulation that actually says, “majority of the Senators present may direct the Sergeant at Arms to request, and, when necessary, to compel the attendance of the absent Senators.”

This actually happened in 1988, when Republicans were boycotting round-the-clock sessions ordered by the Democratic majority. Apparently, Robert Byrd “ordered Henry Giugni, the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms, to arrest absent senators and bring them to the floor. Giugni and a group of Capitol police officers arrested Sen. Robert Packwood, R-Ore., removing him from a locked Senate office by force and physically carrying him onto the Senate floor.” Of course knowing Bob Packwood, this whole sordid affair probably was a big turn-on. Will we see similar drama tonight? I doubt it, because Reid doesn’t have the stones. I’m going to bed.

6:34 A.M.

I wake up early, as the Washington Post had reported that Obama would be speaking between six and seven to prime the just-starting network newscasts. Nope. There’s no Obama. In fact, Orrin Hatch is speaking. What a disappointment. I think it’s safe to say that we’ll never see an “Orrin Hatch Girl” video on YouTube, with a fresh-scrubbed lass cavorting through the streets of Provo in a full-length skirt, salaciously removing her CTR ring for the camera.

6:36 A.M.

Hatch informs us of the encouraging news that they now have the neighborhood watch system in Iraq. Well, then! As soon as we get McGruff the Crime Dog over there, we’ll have this whole counterinsurgency thing licked.

8:34 A.M.

Who the heck is “Senator Amy Klobuchar”? Wikipedia tells me she’s the junior senator from Minnesota, but amazingly I’ve never heard of her. Supposedly she’s a former Mondale aid and a former county prosecutor. Now maybe she’s really tough as nails and this is all some Fargo-like deception, but she seems really timid speaking and everything about her Minnesotan self screams “I’d rather be making hot dishes.”

8:37 A.M.

In the past three minutes, Klobuchar has described soldiers as children or kids about ten times, e.g. “They are still our children… All parents whose children made the ultimate sacrifice and who told me that they want to change course in this war….” I’ve noticed that Klobuchar is hardly the only senator on either side of the aisle to infantilize our soldiers, and last I checked there are no 82nd Janissaries. I don’t get this; our fighting men and women are free-thinking adults, and while lawmakers have an important obligation to the armed forces, patronizing doesn’t help.

Besides, if you’ve spent any time on a military base recently you’d know that demographic trends in the military are if anything skewing dramatically upward. As someone who grew up on and around military bases, I recently spent some time with the Army’s First Infantry division and the average age of the soldiers I encountered made me wonder if the frequency of one’s required prostate exams is covered under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” provisions. If anything we need to recognize a healthy military is a younger military, and I worry about lawmakers who think that every time we put an 18 or 19-year-old in harms way, our foremost concern must be “protecting our children.”

10:20 A.M

Barack Obama finally graces us with his presence. He says he hasn’t had a chance to speak until now because of “enormous backlog.” Backlog? What, was there was an invoice snafu at the warehouse of bloviation? Could no one just stop talking when they were supposed to? When they had filibusters in the old days, they used to resort to reading the phonebook to keep the floor debate technically active. Now you can’t get senators to shut up for the cameras even at 4 A.M., an hour when the only possible large constituency they could be addressing is meth addicts.

10:25 A.M.

John McCain states the obvious, which sadly needs to be stated. “Nothing we have done in the last 24 hours will have changed the facts on the ground.”

10:29 A.M.

McCain, being a former military man, seems to have heard me screaming at Amy Klobuchar. Instead of “kids,” he refers to our collective Armed forces as “Americans who have volunteered to shoulder a rifle and fight this war for us” and later says that withdrawal will “deny our generals and the Americans they have the privilege to command.”

10:37 A.M.

Patty Murray, the other senator from Washington state sands up and says, “I’m proud of our debate.” In related news, Patty Murray is easily impressed.

11:00 A.M.

It’s the appointed hour, and desperate times call for desperate measures. “If there was ever a time for a prayer it would be before this very important vote,” Reid says. I’m guessing he’s asking for a prayer because he doesn’t have one.

11:27 A.M.

BREAKING: Senate Democrats fall short of 60 votes needed to end debate and bring a vote on Iraq withdrawal timetable.

11:34 A.M.

Senate leaders duke it out on the floor. “The only reason we stayed in all night was to provide a bit of theater on an important issue,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says. This comment does not sit well with Reid who hastily retorts (or as hastily as one can retort in parliamentary proceedings) that: “This is not a movie we are involved in.” Which is a damn shame, because I would have hired Michael Bay to direct, had giant robots tear apart the Senate, and given it a happy ending about ten hours ago.

11:39 A.M.

Reid is utterly impotent with rage. “We will return this debate as soon as possible,” he demands. “As Gladstone once said, ‘You cannot fight against the future. Time is on our side.’” I would have preferred the Mick Jagger citation, but good to know Reid knows his history.

12:25 P.M.

When did Robert Byrd turn into Foghorn Leghorn? I mean right down to the stammer…

1:11 P.M.

Ted Kennedy’s giant floating head is now on C-SPAN complaining about cutting subsidies to student-loan programs. (Oh and hey, Teddy: Happy Manslaughteriversary!) I didn’t think it possible but somehow I’m more bored than I was before. Yup, the Senate must finally be back to normal. Except for that whole war thing, our long national nightmare is over.

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