I had the great honor of being on The Hill multiple days recently, including Tuesday, July 25, 2017 for the Senate vote to advance health care legislation to the Senate floor. I waited about two hours to enter the Senate Gallery with a pass I secured from my Senator’s office staff the day before. I never waited that kind of time before to get into the Gallery. And security was tight. As I waited just to enter the Capitol Building Visitor center outside, I stared at two police buses parked in front of the Capitol. I learned there were police waiting inside, in full gear, just in case, and that there were many undercover officers on duty in the city.
I witnessed a planned, non-violent demonstration en route to the Capitol in support of people with disabilities. All that week, the Senate office buildings were full of visitors with physical disabilities. I saw people with prosthetic limbs, and a mom and dad rolling their baby stroller into the Hart Office Bldg. When I was leaving that building, I saw the same couple talking to someone in the lobby. What I hadn’t noticed before was the baby’s oxygen tank and medical tubing attached to the stroller. People actively participated in the health bill conversation.
Folks chatted with me that week – a taxi driver, a woman working at Macy’s, a gentleman crossing the street – they were residents of D.C. having emigrated from other countries. Everyone was knowledgeable of the votes, and were able to speak in-depth about the health care issues being addressed on The Hill.
Waiting to get into the Senate Gallery, I was reminded that visitors are forbidden to have any electronics, including phones, car keys and fitbits. Nor can they eat, drink, talk, read (unless it is about the Senate), take notes, and especially, react to anything. If a senator says something funny, Gallery visitors cannot laugh. With one eye on my watch, hoping to enter in time to see the full proceedings with the oncoming scheduled vote, and with another on the long line of people ahead of me, I finally advanced enough to surrender my cell phone and charger, which is what I have done in the past. I also handed over my tiny container of Altoids, hand lotions, an empty water bottle, and even a little tube of antibiotic ointment before proceeding. I explained to the police officer checking my purse that two containers in my purse remained, and these held my allergy medications and ibuprofen. She did not ask me to surrender these. She thoroughly checked every compartment of my purse and every zippered pocket of my wallet. That was new.
One woman, upon entering the Gallery, exclaimed to security that she wanted to “sit in the best seat and did not want cameras in front of her” and that she was here to watch the vote. These guards put up with a lot. I don’t know how many times I heard them say, “The only seats you cannot take are the two in the back row nearest the Gallery section door, which are reserved for the Capitol police, and the first row. They repeated this over and over, multiple times to the same individuals. And person after person either chose the “police seats” or the front row. I couldn’t believe my ears and eyes. Before entering the Gallery, security tells you to read the back of the ticket which explains all the rules. Signs provide the same information. Security personnel tell you they are going to enforce all these rules. Everybody says they understand. And yet, the guards had to ask a guy to stop reading a novel, and told somebody to get their foot off the seat, and woke up a visitor who fell fast asleep, and repeated, time after time after time, not to sit “there” because it’s either for the police or it’s in the front row. The guards remained courteous the whole time.
These security officers, dressed in suits, welcomed visitors to the Gallery until the Senate resumed. Before proceedings started, I sat next to a gentleman from England, who knew everything about U.S. politics, but had to leave early, and then a woman from China. Visitors can stay as long as they want. There were staffers, families, individuals, groups — a Future Farmers of America contingent was there. At one point, a mom asked the security officer if she could take her child to the bathroom. The officer said she could, but they would have to get back in line, now a 3 1/2 hour wait. The mom, dad and child left. Security did not allow any visitor into the Gallery once the session began; this surprised me. I have entered the Gallery in mid-proceedings in the past.
When the Senate formally introduced the health care business at hand, the people in the section to my right stood and began yelling, “Kill the bill. Don’t kill us,” and “Shame. Shame. Shame.” I saw one clergy member in the group dressed in her collar. The vocal demonstration disrupted the proceedings, and the senators looked up to the Gallery. The press, in a Gallery section to my left, were leaning over the railing, watching, and writing furiously.
The security officers accompanied one demonstrator out, and then came back for the next. No uniformed officers came into the Gallery. It took a few minutes to clear the area, with demonstrators slowly and peacefully exiting, though continually chanting. There were no scuffles. I could hear the group as they walked along the long hallway outside of, and around the Gallery. The senators, who had stopped their work to watch, continued with their business while the demonstrators were being escorted out of the Gallery. I couldn’t hear what was being said on the Senate floor, though. The two children sitting next to me looked a bit frightened, (their mom was behind them) and earlier I had explained to them that politics was not boring, as they had told me it was, but a passionate thing. While they looked at me during the demonstration, I held my hand over my heart and whispered, “Passion,” to the kids, and they nodded. Nobody in our area of the Gallery moved while the protest was taking place.
After the demonstrators were ushered out and things were quiet, I whispered a question to the security guard standing near me, wondering if they would allow more visitors to take the newly vacated seats. He told me they probably would not. There were other vacant seats in other sections of the Gallery and I don’t know if these areas were off-limits to the general public. Many staffers sat in the area directly across from me. With so many people waiting in line to see this vote, I was surprised at the number of Gallery vacancies.
With voting underway, the Democratic senators did not vote when their names were first called. From my perch, I could not see California’s newest Senator, Ms. Harris, but I could see Senator Feinstein, and so many famous faces. Other visitors were pointing out their own Senators and whispering their names, and others whose faces are well-known.
There were a few “No” votes from the Republicans, and the folks in the Gallery were really paying attention. Many people were sitting forward. There wasn’t much whispering now.
After the roll had been called, I heard a few staffers whispering about why the vote was taking longer than usual. The kids next to me asked me what was taking so long, and I told them the voting time had been extended and that we were waiting for more senators to arrive. When the tally was read, I had counted the votes and knew we were waiting for three more votes. The press was hanging over the Gallery railing, again, listening to conversations on the floor, and watching the Senate floor entrances. When Senator McCain walked into the chamber, the floor erupted in applause. The Gallery stayed fairly quiet, with the help of the guards quietly shushing everyone, though I did hear a few people near me exclaim their surprise. Colleagues gave Senator McCain a beautiful tribute. I thought it was classy to see Senator Feinstein walk over and give her friend from across the aisle a big hug. She was the first of many Democrats to do this.
I have been to the Gallery at least a half a dozen times over the years, probably more, and have never seen all senators gathered there at once. It was a rare event and I am thrilled to have witnessed this. I saw the Democrats vote as a block. There was a tie, and I saw the President of the Senate, Vice President Pence, break the tie. The woman from China asked me if that was the President, which he is, but of the Senate. Her English was good, and after a bit she said she understood the difference. She referred to a page in the Senate handbook that explains who sits where on the floor — that book is okay to read.
No, the vote did not go the way I had longed. But to be there in person was a remarkable and most interesting experience, one I will not forget. I saw and heard Senator McCain’s speech afterwards. I watched former Presidential candidates talk to their colleagues. I listened to other visitors whisper with excitement about seeing their senators, and approving or disapproving of the votes they had cast.
I thanked our Security Guard and left the Gallery after the vote. A large contingent of police officers stood in the hallway to my right as I exited the Gallery. I assumed that they had escorted the protesters from the Gallery. I picked up all my personal items at security, and noted the very long line of folks holding Senate Gallery tickets waiting for their turn to go through security and sit in the beautiful room high above the Senate floor. Most likely, they would not see a vote where all 50 states’ Senators would be in the room, but they would witness the business of health care and of the nation.
Outside, I saw and heard more demonstrators campaigning for health care. I saw the press interviewing people on the Capitol steps and near the Capitol Building. Walking to my Senators’ office building, I grabbed a snack from the hot dog cart and ate while sitting on a low wall with a family who had just toured the Capitol. It was nice to enjoy the sunshine. The Hart office building was busy; people walked purposefully through the building. The whole atmosphere felt charged. I registered my thoughts for the votes remaining that day with my Senators’ staffs, and they thanked me.
I was exhausted. Exhausted, but impassioned. No, politics is anything but boring.
August 5, 2017