Health care hijacks ChristmasWASHINGTON — It’s the bill that stole Christmas.
By: Philip Rucker, Washington Post
WASHINGTON — It’s the bill that stole Christmas.
Behind each cranky senator dealing his or her way toward a historic Christmas Eve vote on health-care reform is a cadre of staff members laboring day and night to make sense of the ever-changing 2,457-page bill, tutor their bosses, spin the press and break down what it means for constituents back home.
Senators and their staff have been deprived of sleep and are subsisting on takeout pad Thai, cafeteria panini and office cookies. Stuck on Capitol Hill every day since Nov. 30, they have had no time for the gym, let alone Christmas.
With the final vote on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act scheduled to start after sundown Dec. 24, senators and hundreds of their health policy analysts, press secretaries and other aides — not to mention the police officers, clerks and student pages who keep the place humming — wishing to be with their families will instead spend the holiday in Washington. And there’s a possibility that the Senate could be called back next week, to take up debt-limit legislation.
For all the drama playing out on the chamber floor, hundreds of mini-family crises are playing out in e-mails and phone calls summed up by one weighty concern: What about Christmas?
The prospect of not making it home has senators and their aides so vexed that some have not confessed the scheduling details to their families. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr.’s daughter found out about the scheduled Christmas Eve vote while watching CNN on Saturday. “Mom!” she shrieked upon hearing the news.
On Sunday, the Pennsylvania Democrat drove four hours north to his Scranton home. After two hours with his wife and kids, he headed back to be at the Capitol in time for a 1 a.m. cloture vote. He said his family time was worth the risk of getting stuck in the snow on a highway and missing the vote.
Unlike most years, when the Senate takes several weeks off around the holidays, few key aides made Christmas vacation plans this year, knowing it could come to this.
A top aide to a Democratic senator said she hopes to be in Wisconsin on Christmas Eve to join her family at a lake house. “My mom has been very nervous about planning a family hayride and sleigh ride and wants to know if I’m in or out,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “My mom kicked me out of the sleigh ride because I didn’t RSVP.”
The marathon debate on health-care legislation has become the “era of the unexpected,” said staffer Lauren Gilchrist. As the top health policy aide to Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., Gilchrist has been working on overdrive. “You don’t want to be that crazy person who e-mails at 3:30 in the morning, but sometimes you are,” she said.
Gilchrist said she has been clocking so many hours that she long ago stopped cooking her own meals and hasn’t been to the gym since August. “It got to a point where there was a bag of Halloween candy and I’d eaten everything except those really gross candy corns,” she said.
When the voting is finally over, Gilchrist, 33, plans to fly home to Minnesota and stay for a while. “I’m going to cook, hang out with my friends and family, exercise again, read novels and things that are not blogs and be normal again.”