WASHINGTON — When power changes hands in the nation's capital, the shift is palpable. And nowhere was the recent electoral cataclysm more evident than in the halls of Congress on Tuesday.
As President Bush prepared to deliver his sixth State of the Union address with the lowest approval rating of his presidency, congressional Democrats who couldn't get airtime on the local news six months ago shared brownies and coffee with CBS anchor Katie Couric.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who took her place as the first woman to share the rostrum dominated for 217 years mostly by jowly white men, began her day with a celebratory breakfast of chocolate ice cream.
And aides to freshman Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who delivered the televised Democratic response, happily fretted over which coffee table prop to go with -- the cut-glass crystal bowl or a hardback copy of his latest book, "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 26, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
State of the Union guest: In Wednesday's Section A, a photo caption described First Lady Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney as applauding "former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo." Mutombo is a current player.
"Oh, it's not really so different," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said as his Democratic colleagues flitted from one photo op to the next and he strode the halls with not a single camera chasing him.
But everyone knew something was different.
Republicans triumphant during 12 years of dominance looked deflated, like the vanquished football squad forced to attend the other team's victory fest.
Bush struggled to keep command of the day, but it seemed at times to belong as much to Pelosi. He set out his vision for energy independence; she announced the Democratic members of her proposed select committee on global warming.
Given that on the East Coast TV broadcasts, Bush followed "American Idol," a lot of people were probably tuned in and attempts were made put on a bipartisan face.
Pelosi sounded like she meant it when she said it was her "high privilege" to introduce the president of the United States, whose politics she has previously called dangerous. And Bush -- whose spokeswoman called Pelosi's recent comments on Bush's war strategy "poisonous" -- opened his message with a rare public display of affection: "And tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own to begin the State of the Union message with the words, 'Madam Speaker.' "
But no amount of chivalry would erase the image of Pelosi standing over the president's left shoulder, attired in a designer suit and her maternal "wait till your father gets home" gaze.
"It's a moment for the women of the nation. It's a moment for girls," ABC's Cokie Roberts said.
For the first time in his presidency, Bush addressed a congressional chamber marked by Democratic hostility and Republican defection. Attempting to divert attention from the unpopular war, Bush focused on his renewable energy plans and healthcare for the uninsured.
But the war proved a hard subject to change, with scenes of destruction pouring out of Iraq and televisions flashing a poll that showed 28% of respondents believe America isn't winning.
Even as White House Press Secretary Tony Snow insisted that the situation was improving overseas, the used-to-be-loyal House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told CNN that a lot of Republicans are "skeptical" of Bush's troop increase.
"It's like there's this big boulder in the room that's Iraq and President Bush is throwing around a bunch of little pebbles hoping nobody will notice the boulder," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
Power in Washington can be measured by perks and a full dance card, few of which were in evidence for the GOP.
Rep. David Dreier's "Volton Woman" pinball machine that once occupied the Glendora Republican's Capitol office -- where it was played by Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- was unceremoniously stuck in a corner of a minority committee office.
"It will probably be leaving the Hill soon," one GOP staffer said.
And as Webb tried to figure out how to attend three simultaneous committee hearings and squeeze in dinner between practice sessions with the TelePrompTer, his less busy GOP colleagues took the liberty of going off-campus for lunch at their campaign committee headquarters. There, they discussed not the administration's vision for the future, but how to win back the chamber they never expected to lose.
Even upstart Democrats like Webb brimmed with confidence.
When the more experienced leadership presumed to write his rebuttal speech, the ex-Marine-turned-senator threw it away, retreated to the condo overlooking the Iwo Jima memorial where he penned his seven novels, and wrote a speech of his own.