On a Long, Dark Night, Congress Caught Doing Something Right

By Jamie Stiehm

December 23, 2020 5 min read

They say the personal is political. The political is also personal.

Spending hours under the Capitol dome as Congress negotiated a COVID-19 relief package, I saw personalities break through the hot air.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., literally walked in circles around the rotunda, carrying on a cellphone conversation among the statues.

That summed up the mood in the House and Senate chambers. Christmas was coming, with lawmakers stressed and pressed like you and me. Right up to the Monday midnight deadline, they passed an emergency $900 billion bill. At last.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer called it a "shot in the arm," perhaps to link it to the new vaccine. He told me he "defanged" a late move to curb Federal Reserve emergency loans.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who had a surprise up her bright red sleeve, declared, "Seven hundred hours from now, Joe Biden will be president." But who's counting?

The divided Congress result bodes well for Biden.

All agreed the legislation was way too late. Democrats felt it was too little aid for the suffering country in crisis, on the pandemic and economic fronts.

Still, it gave something for everyone. Republicans won tax breaks on corporate lunches. Democrats got assistance for renters, small businesses, food, child care and the jobless. Coronavirus testing and vaccines are buttressed. A direct payment of $600 to most adults is included.

Some showed more grace under pressure than others. A bald Kansas Republican, Sen. Pat Roberts, sported a cowboy hat onto the formal Senate floor. A cattlemen's group gave it to Roberts, who is retiring, so heck, what does he care?

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., never broke from his calm, icy stare. He often passes reporters waiting by the Ohio grandfather clock without a word or clue of what he's going to do.

"Waiting for Mitch?" Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, asks us with a grin.

Josh Hawley, a freshman Republican senator with outsize confidence, told reporters, "If this is the best we can do, it's terrible, a mockery."

Hawley urged direct payments be higher as a stimulus but was loudly opposed by Sen. Ron Johnson, a wealthy Wisconsin Republican.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., another young conservative, took a bitter verbal shot at the press gallery, which overlooks the floor. I was surprised, because I've seen the Senate in several phases and never witnessed that before.

That got me thinking about "giants of the Senate." Since before the Civil War, it was famed for speakers with a vision and gift for making laws and compromises to further the greater good.

I knew some as a rookie reporter, covering Sens. Edward Kennedy, Robert C. Byrd, Bob Dole, John McCain and other leaders respected across party lines. Their voices were listened to, especially Kennedy's hearty roar on the floor.

Byrd often touched on the Roman Senate, his compass. He told me the Roman Senate "ceded" its power to Julius Caesar. Caesar did not seize it. A lesson in presidential power.

Looking from the gallery, I spotted no Senate giants. A few could grow into giants, but they'd better hurry up, because the country needs some. South Dakotan Sen. John Thune, the Republican whip, is very tall, but no giant.

Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., chief builders of the bipartisan rescue package, said they saw more friendly spirit on the floor than all year. Working together lifts morale.

If any giant strides the Capitol's marble halls, it's Pelosi, a study in motion churning out statements and strategy. Her House is a host of progressive bills, compared with the Senate's stately pace under McConnell's thumb.

In a victory for history's court, the speaker just banished the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the Capitol. For Christmas, the "noble" traitor is now gone from the house of the democracy he waged war against. Thank you, Madam, nice gift.

Most of all, Pelosi had the courage to confront President Donald Trump all along, leading the way to his impeachment.

2020 began with the Senate impeachment trial and ran into the pandemic in mid-March.

The Senate approved the package's final passage on the winter solstice, 92-6.

Let's hope the darkest, longest night leads to January light.

Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. To read her weekly column and find out more about Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit creators.com.

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