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Congress Can’t Break for Summer Vacation With an Incomplete

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine an incredibly large community college with students who take themselves and their studies very seriously, one now quivering on the verge of a long-awaited summer break.

But there’s a hitch: Two exams--with tough questions on health care and crime--have almost the entire school cramming around the clock. Even students not taking the tests must wait until the others are through before bursting out the classroom doors.

And so they linger--irritable over having to eat non-refundable airline tickets for vacation trips they now must miss or reschedule, pointing fingers at one another for being so stubborn and disorganized that, well, now they all have to attend summer school.

That’s the scene this week on Capitol Hill, where both the House and Senate are in special session to pass long-awaited legislation on crime and health care--both Republicans and Democrats complaining of the other’s partisan politicking. They’re as cranky as two de-clawed cats stuck in a burlap sack.

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“It’s partisan, that’s for sure,” said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City). “There’s finger-pointing, but we’re used to that around here. I’d say the mood is more resignation than hostility.”

Added Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Santa Clarita): “Nobody is happy about being here under these circumstances. The Republicans won the crime vote last week, and that has just thrown everything into a tizzy. I don’t understand it.

“I asked a Democrat today, ‘Why can’t we get things speeded up and get out of here?’ It’s just crazy. We’re dragging out stuff that’s not very controversial and not hard to do.”

As senators face possible round-the-clock sessions and House leaders huddle in strategy meetings, an anxious nation and the Washington world--tens of thousands of interns, aides and policy-makers--await some kind, any kind, of results.

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Indeed, Thursday marked Day 4 of Capitol Hill held hostage to its own indecision. While lawmakers were scheduled to break on Aug. 13, many now suggest that they might work through Sept. 7--when they were scheduled to resume session--if a compromise is not reached.

Meanwhile, besides the crime and health care issues, the business of Capitol Hill has pretty much ground to a halt. Since most legislators and policy-makers figured they’d be sunning themselves on a Tahitian island right about now, nobody scheduled any of the hearings and meetings that normally consume days here.

A strange quiet pervades the House and Senate office buildings, normally bustling with taxicabs delivering lobbyists and professionals to testify at committee and subcommittee hearings.

Workers weary of long months of answering telephone calls and constituent mail are holed up like squirrels in their offices, anxiously watching the door, ready to bolt.

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“Look at that empty hallway--it’s usually full of people,” said David Joergenson, legislative assistant to Rep. Carlos Moorhead (R-Glendale). “There are seven or eight committees and subcommittees in this building, sometimes going three at a time, bringing in all kinds of people. Now the place is deserted.”

Indeed, committee rooms across Capitol Hill display “Not in Session” placards over their doors. It’s even slow at the House post office, a place that usually dispatches mail by the ton. “It’s ugly,” a worker said. “People are just waiting.”

Many Hill staffers feel like that worker on Friday afternoon when the boss is away: They want to leave early. But they’re afraid that something will happen the moment they walk out the door.

“It’s hard to get out of here with the House in session, no matter what you do,” said an aide to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles). “The calls come in from constituents wanting to know why these lawmakers just can’t make up their minds.”

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Meanwhile, the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees are working long hours hammering out details on a health care package. One staffer literally fell out of his seat this week when he dozed off during a marathon committee meeting.

“People I know are talking divorce,” said one Waxman staffer. “Spouses are not pleased over this delay.”

The delay cost Gene Smith, Berman’s chief of staff, a non-refundable ticket to Arizona. Now she has to pay full fare. “My weekend in Phoenix is going to cost me $200 a day,” she said. “What’s irksome is that we work too hard for our vacations here to see them hung up on simple partisan one-upmanship.”

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McKeon has other problems. In this election year, he had several town meetings scheduled back in his district. And he’s not happy about missing his son’s return to Los Angeles after two years with a Mormon mission in Spain.

For McKeon, a carefully planned schedule has gone haywire.

“I was told by the Speaker and congressional leaders that I could count on this time being inviolate,” he said. “I had town hall meetings three nights this week. I was only able to make one of them. The others I did by telephone.”

But Berman says such hardships are part of the job, one the voting public expects its lawmakers to endure without complaint.

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“Nobody feels sorry for us,” he said. “And in a way, they shouldn’t. We keep running for reelection. Nobody is making us do this job.”


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