One on the Floor

The title of this entry refers to the ongoing efforts of my Beloved Husband to teach me to recognize a song in the style of “four on the floor.”  I have made limited progress in this skill, mostly by memorizing the answers, but I continue to try to learn.  The connection to today’s post is rather obscure, but as the topic was assembling in my brain, this was the title that accompanied it.

I had a revelation today that I think I finally understand football.  Watching a game on TV is much different from buying a ticket and watching in the stadium.  Likewise, watching from the upper deck is different from watching from the sidelines of the field.   I regularly watch the action in the Senate on C-Span, and I am accustomed to that big picture (or little picture, depending on the TV size) perspective.  I have made a point to go over to the staff gallery to observe the action when I have time, but in spite of being only a floor above the action, it still resembles the view of the football game from the roof deck.  Absolutely worth the price of admission, since it’s free, but I hadn’t realized that I was still a little separated from the action.  Yesterday, I checked off “go onto the Senate floor” from my bucket list, and wow- that was definitely watching from the sidelines and being right in with the action!

I specifically arrived about 10 minutes before Senator-Elect Markey was due to be sworn in, but I learned that the floor was closed until after the swearing-in was finished.  I scooted up to the staff gallery where I ditched my prohibited cell phone and Blackberry and snagged a spot in the gang of pages (A murder of pages?  A Parliament of pages?) who were already seated.

The President Pro Tempore, Senator Leahy, presided over the opening of the session, which starts with the morning prayer and the pledge of allegiance.  Shortly thereafter, Vice President Biden arrived to preside over the swearing in.  I was pretty excited to see him in person.  (He’s tanned and relaxed, thank you for asking.)  I always enjoy watching the VP preside since he is such a veteran of the Senate.  I always feel as though all the rules and responses are simply second nature to him rather than requiring any coaching or even conscious thought.  I also noticed that somehow the chair for the presiding officer has ever so much more ceremony and dignity when occupied by either the President Pro Tempore or by the Vice President rather than by one of the junior senators who share the job of presiding over routine sessions. There was a bit of a delay before everything was organized and the cast of characters assembled, so I was able to observe the various conversations among the senators who were present.  There was no requirement to be present for the event, so I appreciated the people who did show up.  (and yes, my senator was there!).

Eventually, Vice President Biden read the certificate of election that is required for a new senator, and Senator-elect Ed Markey walked from the rear of the chamber accompanied by both Senator Elizabeth Warren, senior senator from Massachusetts, and Senator Mo Cowan, who has been serving as the junior senator from the state since Senator Kerry left to become Secretary of State.  For the swearing-in ceremony, usually a new senator is accompanied only by the senior senator from the same state, but I appreciated that under the circumstances, both sitting senators took part in the ritual.  After the official ceremony, the other senators who were present came to congratulate new Senator Markey as well as to give their regards to Senator Cowan.  I was pleased to see Senator Cowan one last time, although I noticed that he seemed to embrace that the center of attention was elsewhere this morning.  His navy bow tie was positively subdued compared to his usual sartorial splendor.

At this point, I ducked out to go down to the floor, but I decided that a stop at a restroom would be a strategic move first.  Thus I ended up running the gauntlet of press, security, and Secret Service outside the Senate Chamber as well as passing through the second knot of Markey family and well-wishers gathered in and around the Old Senate Chamber for the swearing-in ceremony to be re-staged to get pictures.  Secure in the power of my Senate Staff badge, I passed through unscathed and unchallenged in both directions.

Down one floor, the very kind guard at the floor check-in desk walked me through the process of getting credentialed; because I am a Fellow, I don’t automatically have floor privileges.  The guard said, “Oh, you were UC’ed,” referring to my senator’s asking for Unanimous Consent that I have floor privileges for the rest of the session of Congress back in January.  We worked out all the details, and the guard escorted me to the door closest to the Democratic staff box.  After checking multiple times that I had turned off my cell phone, reminding me that I mustn’t check it or my Blackberry while I was on the floor, and that I should walk around the back of the chamber but never behind a senator who is speaking, I was allowed entry.

Being on the Senate floor is definitely watching the action from the sidelines.  It was exciting to see Vice President Biden in person from the staff gallery above, but shortly after I took my seat on the staff benches, the Vice President passed back through the chamber and left through a door not 20 feet from me.  I was quite thrilled, in my oh-so-cool-this-happens-to-me-all-the-time-but-look-there’s-the-Vice-President! Fellow kind of way.  My BH may have seen the President in person more times than I have, but I certainly got closer to the VPotus than I ever thought possible!

My Legislative Director had suggested that yesterday morning might be an interesting time to be on the floor since the latest filibuster kerfluffle was coming to a head.  Knowing that the staff seats can fill up, I arrived early and brought some reports to read while I waited.  Eventually the vote began, and as is my habit, I started tallying the yays and nays.  I can recognize all but a small handful of senators by sight (and it does irritate me that I don’t know them all), but my studying has paid off in my ability to watch the floor and sort out the dynamics of the conversations.  I also appear to be a resource for people around me trying to identify senators.  I am endlessly curious about why certain people might have conversations and what they have in common, other than being part of a very elite group of legislators.  Senator Mark Udall, whose brother recently passed away unexpectedly was obviously getting many condolences.  For others, I could identify issue or interest overlaps as well as being members of a class who were all elected at the same time. Other senators obviously make a point of chatting with folks on the other side of the aisle, and by the time the vote was halfway done, later-arriving senators were challenged to elbow their ways through the crush of colleagues conversing in the Well.

I knew that when a vote is happening, staff are not allowed to enter or leave the chamber, and when I considered all the congestion caused by the senators themselves, it all made immediate sense.  I stayed until the crowd dissipated and a quorum call began, and then I took my leave.

I think the overwhelming difference of being on the floor rather than being in the gallery is that the senators become people, especially people with widely different heights.  I certainly see people in the hallways; just last week I passed Speaker Boehner in the hallway and rode in an elevator with Senator McCain, but being on the Senate floor was another version of close encounters with senators.  I’m already looking forward to my next visit!

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