In a stalemated Capitol, lawmakers embrace political theater

WASHINGTON — On the first day of the federal government shutdown, Republican leaders shucked their jackets, sat at a conference table and faced empty chairs — and cameras — to show that Democrats wouldn't negotiate.

With the shutdown in its fourth day, President Obama, also sans jacket with his sleeves rolled up, strolled from the White House to a sub shop, where he praised its 10% discount for furloughed workers.

Political theater is at an all-time high as both parties seek to outdo each other with more elaborate and showy news events, even as there is little legislating or even backroom negotiating underway to end the stalemate.

The shutdown has emptied the usually bustling halls of the Capitol. Phones are going unanswered. The Capitol barber shop is closed, as are some eateries — even Taco Thursday was canceled. And worse still: Senators were forced to operate their own elevators.

But members of Congress are going about their business, perhaps with the awareness that, while they are deemed "essential" employees and not subject to furlough, much of the public thinks otherwise.

With the parties at a stalemate and much work at a halt, lawmakers have plenty of opportunities for theatrics. Republicans continue to publicly insist on changes to the Affordable Care Act as a condition for moving forward on a government funding plan, while Democrats hold firm to their view that the government should be reopened before they consider any deals.

House Republicans emerged from a closed-door strategy session saying they were sticking with their plan to move smaller spending bills that would resume some of the most visible and politically popular functions of government. "This isn't some damn game," said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

He opened a meeting with his colleagues by reading letters he had received from students who had sent encouraging advice for handling stress, which included taking a nap and listening to music, such as Lady Gaga, according to lawmakers in the room.

Democrats have complained that the GOP's piecemeal approach is itself a stunt. The tactic has put the tea-party-infused Republican House majority in the odd position of arguing the virtues of government spending.

To promote one such bill, which would restore funding for the National Institutes of Health, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was flanked by Republican lawmakers with medical backgrounds. They wore white lab coats, and one had a stethoscope dangling from his neck.

The Senate's Democratic majority has dismissed repeated efforts to bring these House-passed bills to a vote, leaving senators plenty of time for a favorite activity: talking.

"No more gimmicks. No more games," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Budget Committee, said at a news conference, calling on House Republicans to allow a vote on a government spending bill without any amendments that would undermine the healthcare law.

To her side was a giant poster (the Senate's printing office has been deemed essential, it appears) with a Twitter hashtag: "#justvote."

House Democrats debuted a different one, "#demandavote," during an event on the Capitol's East Front. House Republicans opted for: "#letstalk."

One essential function members have performed is that of tour guide. With none of the building staff available to handle visitors, the public's only ticket into the Capitol is as the guest of an elected official.

Friday was a particularly busy day — at one point in the afternoon, no fewer than seven groups were walking through National Statuary Hall and the Rotunda, each led by an amateur guide.

"You get a chance to talk to them and see how much they appreciate this building and this country," said Rep. Steve King after he broke off from a joint tour with a fellow Iowa Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley.

"I go through this building fast, with my BlackBerry in one hand and talking on the phone in the other," King said. "This puts us in a slow-down mode, where we soak up a little bit more of this than we would have otherwise."

Rep. Richard Hudson, a freshman Republican from North Carolina, acknowledged he had some unexpected free time this week. With much of his staff on furlough, he took a turn as his own receptionist.

One caller, Hudson recalled, said "he didn't vote for me and wanted me to vote for the healthcare bill." Another was so stunned that his congressman was actually on the line, his wife called back to verify it.