WASHINGTON — A roll of red and green plaid paper with leaping gold reindeer is unfurled on a table in Zoe Lofgren's Capitol Hill office. On the credenza behind her is a pile of presents without ribbon, a blue sweater for her sister-in-law Trish, a book for her daughter Sheila.
Getting the gifts back to San Jose in time for Christmas is not a problem. Getting Lofgren back, a San Jose Democrat marooned here with the rest of Congress for the gloomiest Washington Christmas in memory, is another matter.
"I am going home," the freshman congresswoman announces, purposefully ripping a piece of tape from its roll. While her freshman Republicans colleagues have vowed to stay in Washington and fight, California's lone freshman Democrat says enough is enough. "The budget is important but . . . I have a 10-year-old boy counting on his mommy to be there on Christmas, and I am going to do it. And that's it."
By rights, members of Congress should have been out of here sometime around Thanksgiving. But "the budget standoff that won't die" promises to hold them as late as Christmas Eve--a nuisance for East Coast lawmakers who can fly home in an hour, a nightmare for Californians who face a six-hour haul.
All in all, the only thing that this budget impasse has yielded around here so far is a rotten Christmas. In one of the House office building cafeterias, a wrinkled SEASON'S GREETINGS sign adorns the salad bar, which is wilting. A lonely "HO" hangs from the ceiling on a twisted string, so it just said "OH." Workers valiantly don fuzzy Santa hats, but they'd have had better luck trying to cheer the troops at San Quentin.
"In general, people are very annoyed," one Republican staffer mumbled. "We are losing our Christmas because both sides want to make a point, and they don't understand the general public is just turned off. The people are saying a pox upon all of them."
Even a squeeze of his snowman tie, which obediently emits a chorus of "Jingle Bells," could not brighten his spirits as he slumped back to the office, his Christmas shopping yet unfinished. "If this were a terrible crisis . . . no one would mind working over Christmas."
The Congress that convened a year ago with a pledge from House Speaker Newt Gingrich to be more family friendly has proved itself not very. The first 100 days were so frenetic that members were falling asleep on the House floor. Vacations have been imperiled or postponed all year. No one has had a decent breather since Labor Day, and marathon sessions have ruined more nights than anyone cares to count.
The last time that Republican Paul Gillmor went home to Ohio, his 3-year-old son hung onto his leg and wouldn't let go. "That about says it," Gillmor said. "He misses me. I hardly ever see him. I'll be home for Christmas."
Freshman Republican Brian Bilbray, a veritable cheerleader when it comes to the virtues of a balanced budget, sounds positively mournful when asked about his children--a girl, 9, and a boy, 10--who are 3,000 miles away.
"Maybe Santa will drop me through the chimney," he says, vowing to leave Washington Christmas Eve if that's what it takes. If he wants to return in time for Congress to reconvene as expected Tuesday, he'll have to fly back Christmas night. Swell holiday.
Some lawmakers look to the troops in Bosnia to put their misery in perspective.
"I am going to be here in Washington," vows Rep. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach), who will be spending Christmas not with the daughter, who is pregnant with his first grandchild, but at his cousin's house in Northern Virginia. "If the president can send troops to Bosnia, then we can stay here Christmas and get this thing done."