It is 6:30 a.m. and still dark in a fashionable downtown neighborhood when Dianne Feinstein slips out of her brick condominium and into a shiny black limousine.
On Thursday, Nov. 18, as the California senator embarks on a 19-hour day, only her first three appointments are assured: a nationally televised interview on "CBS This Morning," a White House visit with President Clinton and a 9:30 a.m. vote on the Senate floor.
From then on, the recurring scheduling nightmare that pervades the life of a U.S. senator takes hold.
Feinstein has little clue to how her day will go. She does not know what business the Senate will pursue as it hurtles toward year-end adjournment. Nor can she predict how many of the 18 appointments on her calendar for today will get scrapped.
Of pressing concern is whether the Senate will wrap up business within two days so Feinstein can attend the biggest fund-raising event of her political career--a $700,000 Saturday night dinner in San Francisco featuring the President as the star attraction. She was told the Senate expects to recess Friday, but Feinstein has learned that such predictions are as reliable as astrological forecasts.
In their first year, California Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have slowly adjusted to the haphazard, chaotic nature of an institution that never seems to know at any given time what is going on.
"It's something I've become inured to somewhat," Feinstein says. "If this had happened six months ago, I think I would have been maybe beside myself."
In many ways, there is no such thing as a typical day in the life of a senator. Boxer and Feinstein say there is never enough time to accommodate the constant demands of colleagues, staffers, corporate executives, lobbyists, constituents and the media.
Both senators receive about 150 formal requests for appointments weekly and are forced to reject all but a few each day. "I could easily be at a diplomatic reception every night of the week," Feinstein says.
When Feinstein is not on the Senate floor or in committee, she spends much of her time huddling with staff on key issues and tackling paperwork. She makes it a top priority to greet business executives from California who travel to Washington.
Boxer said she sets aside a portion of her schedule to welcome ordinary constituents and students.
In an effort to learn more about the activities of the two California senators, The Times recently asked to follow them for a day during the final weeks of the legislative session.
Since taking office, Boxer and Feinstein have refused repeated requests for their appointment calendars. Senators are not obliged to provide any documents related to their office because members of Congress have exempted themselves from federal public disclosure laws.
But Feinstein agreed to allow a Times reporter to accompany her on Nov. 18 with few restrictions. Boxer's office declined, saying that she was spending most of her time working on the Senate floor. Boxer later recounted her day in a telephone interview.
The day begins with Feinstein riding an emotional high after Senate approval the previous morning of her proposed ban on semiautomatic assault weapons. The bill's passage also is the reason Feinstein finds herself in a limousine courtesy of CBS.
During the TV interview, Feinstein cannot resist taking a shot at the National Rifle Assn. and its insistence that the 2nd Amendment gives every American the right to possess firearms. "If you follow the logical continuum of the NRA, you can have a tank in your back yard (or) a tactical nuclear weapon," Feinstein says.
Afterward, Feinstein is met in the studio lobby by a young aide who doubles as her driver. Lugging a heavy leather bag packed with briefing papers, Feinstein climbs into the passenger seat of her navy blue Buick Park Avenue with California license plates.
With nearly an hour to kill before the White House visit, Feinstein enjoys a buffet breakfast of bacon strips, a muffin, blackberries, grapefruit juice and coffee at the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel.
Such a relaxed, sit-down meal is a rare treat, Feinstein says. Breakfast usually consists of a quick bowl of cereal at home or a glazed doughnut on the run. Last night's dinner, she says, was tortilla chips, guacamole and a Michelob Light with her staff in the office.
The only regular exercise the 60-year-old Feinstein gets is walking several miles a week between offices and meeting rooms on Capitol Hill. At first, Feinstein said, she suffered blisters on her feet before purchasing comfortable walking shoes.
At the White House, Clinton plans to brief two dozen top congressional lawmakers about his plans for a trip to Seattle for a meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and the Asia-Pacific economic summit. Feinstein is the only freshman senator invited.
As the guests mill outside the Oval Office, Feinstein pounces on an opportunity to buttonhole several influential House members regarding her assault weapons ban. The legislation is expected to face tough opposition in the House.
"I need your help," Feinstein is overheard telling Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.).
The lawmakers meet with Clinton at 8:45 a.m. and Feinstein ducks out at 9:20 a.m., in time to make the morning vote.
En route to Capitol Hill, Feinstein recounts the meeting with the President: "Different senators said what they think. I chirped up, too. I probably know Jiang Zemin better than anybody there. I made suggestions on how he should be approached."
On the Senate floor, Feinstein and Boxer vote with the majority to renew a law calling for independent prosecutors to investigate allegations of wrongdoing against top Administration officials. The measure passes easily, 76-21.
The two California senators chat on the floor before Boxer takes the president's chair to preside over the Senate chamber for 90 minutes while Feinstein heads to the Hart Office Building.
Feinstein arrives in her tan-toned inner office at 10 a.m. Materials on her mahogany desk are arranged in meticulous order, including green file folders containing background material for each of the day's appointments.
As her in-basket quickly fills up, Feinstein asks for a computer printout of telephone activity to her Washington office. The printout indicates that the office received 1,441 calls the day before, and 95% were answered. The results bring a smile to Feinstein's face. After a year, she says, her staff finally is getting a handle on the overwhelming load of constituent mail and phone calls.
She leaves her office this morning to appear before a Senate commerce subcommittee on consumer affairs hearing on arson, called to order by Chairman Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.). Only one other senator on the seven-member panel, Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), is present, and he departs immediately after Feinstein's opening testimony. No television cameras are present and rows of chairs are mostly empty.
One man seated near the back of the room falls asleep before Feinstein begins reading from six pages of prepared testimony.
Afterward, Feinstein says she is not bothered by the lack of interest in proposed legislation to provide federal grants for various arson programs. "I don't care if you do it in a closet as long you get the thing out and done," she says.
Back at the office, Feinstein meets with executives from Bumble Bee Seafoods, who raise concerns about inconsistent testing of tuna by the Food and Drug Administration. Feinstein has two questions upfront: "How many employees do you have in California?" Answer: 500. "You aren't going to Mexico if NAFTA passes, are you?" Answer: No.
Shortly after noon, Feinstein hikes back to the Capitol for a weekly Thursday lunch of the Democratic Policy Committee, where she joins Boxer. Here, Feinstein is surprised to learn that the Senate has begun considering the North American Free Trade Agreement. Floor debate on the agreement is scheduled to stretch over 20 hours. With drawn-out negotiations pending on the Brady bill handgun control measure and other matters, it is beginning to appear doubtful that Feinstein will make her Saturday night fund-raiser.
(As it turned out, Feinstein and Boxer voted against NAFTA at 7:20 p.m. EST Saturday before rushing to National Airport, where a specially chartered Gulfstream jet flew them to San Francisco. On the way, Feinstein addressed the dinner crowd by telephone from the airplane. She arrived at the Fairmont Hotel about 11 p.m. PST, in time to thank the President and greet departing guests.)
After lunch, Feinstein returns to her office, where aides brief her on a 3 p.m. Judiciary Committee meeting. In less than 15 minutes, the committee approves with little debate or discussion the nominations of 19 federal judges, 11 U.S. attorneys and two Justice Department officials.
Back at her desk, Feinstein grabs the TV remote control and clicks on the Senate debate. She had planned to prepare her NAFTA remarks over the weekend and deliver them the next week. But, under the Senate's accelerated schedule, she will give her speech tonight.
Feinstein takes a call from Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who offers to help persuade House members to vote for the assault weapons ban. Feinstein is delighted and asks him to lead a nationwide lobbying effort on behalf of law enforcement.
The senator hangs up the phone and then calls her secretary. "You want to make a fresh pot? Thank you." Within minutes, she is sipping hot coffee from a Senate mug bearing her signature. She pops a few M & M's brought to her by an aide.
The evening portion of Feinstein's schedule lists two events--a birthday party for Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and a reception in honor of Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose).
As is often the case, Feinstein passes up both engagements for Senate work.
"I can always find reasons not to go," Feinstein explains. "You won't believe it, but I'm basically a shy person in a social situation."
Feinstein returns to the latest NAFTA draft prepared by her staff. At 8 p.m., she sticks her head into the press office and suggests ordering Chinese takeout. At 9:20 p.m., Feinstein walks to the Capitol and gives her speech opposing the trade agreement at 10:05 p.m.
She is not yet free to leave because Democratic leaders are advising that a vote on final passage of the crime bill may happen tonight.
At midnight, Feinstein instructs her driver to take her home. At her residence, Feinstein goes upstairs to watch the Senate deliberations while her driver waits downstairs in the event she has to return to the Capitol for a vote.
Boxer said she went to her Capitol Hill apartment at 11:30 p.m., did two loads of laundry and waited for the anticipated vote while watching Senate proceedings on television.
At 1:36 a.m., Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) gives official notice that no votes are pending. It is safe for both senators to sleep.