WASHINGTON — If you stick around long enough in Washington, politics sometimes offers chances to enjoy the spectacle of your old foe being routed. It might take six years, or even a dozen.
Republican George Allen defeated Democrat Chuck Robb in a bitter contest in back in 2000.
And so it was appropriate in a way that Robb was right there on the Senate floor Thursday shortly after high noon to escort Democrat Jim Webb — the man who beat Allen last November in another bitter election — to the front of the chamber so Vice President Cheney could administer the oath of office to Webb.
“I know a lot of people think that’s important,” said Robb, alluding to the chance to savor Allen’s defeat. But he said “that part of it” wasn’t why he was there. “I’ve known and liked Jim Webb for a long time.”
Also an eyewitness on the Senate floor was former Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, the Democrat whom Republican Rick Santorum defeated in 1994.
Wofford could have the pleasure of watching Democrat Bob Casey, Jr., take the oath, after Casey’s landslide defeat of Santorum last November.
Likewise former Sen. Jean Carnahan, D- Mo., was there in person to escort Democrat Claire McCaskill to the front of the chamber to be sworn in to occupy the seat Carnahan held four years ago.
McCaskill is the woman who last November defeated Jim Talent, the Republican who defeated Carnahan back in 2002.
“Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” No, that wasn’t Carnahan, Wofford or Robb, it was the irrepressible octogenarian Robert Byrd, the senator from West Virginia, just elected to his ninth term. He shouted “Hallelujah!” as he walked back to his seat after taking his oath.
Underscoring the unpredictably of politics and of life, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who survived cancer two years ago, looked right at the peak of health as he escorted Casey and posed for photos with his new colleague.
But the just re-elected Republican Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming looked quite fragile. He is battling leukemia and has lost some of his hair.
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Missing: Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, in George Washington University Hospital, recovering after a Dec. 13 hemorrhage. Control of the Senate hangs on Johnson's health.
The Senate chamber on this day was full of former senators clustered near the back wall: not only Robb and Wofford, but former Majority Leader Bill Frist, former astronaut and Ohio senator John Glenn, and Louisiana’s John Breaux.
Historical allusions were everywhere one looked: Robb stood talking to reporters off the Senate floor no more than 10 yards from the marble bust of his father-in-law, former president and former Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson.
Mondale weighs in on Iraq
Just a short walk from the bust of former Vice President Walter Mondale in the Senate lobby was Mondale himself, holding forth to reporters about Iraq and Sen. Barack Obama.
The Illinois senator, Mondale said, “had certainly made an impression the country and in Minnesota and he’s going to be looked at,” meaning as a presidential contender.
On Iraq, “the president is just drifting now; he doesn’t show any signs of having any idea of what should be done,” Mondale told reporters, “and meanwhile our kids are getting killed over there.”
The execution of Saddam Hussein “exposes to all the harsh, bitter ethnic relations over there and our kids are standing there in them middle of it.”
Do voters in Minnesota want the Democratic Congress to now end the war by cutting the funding, just as Mondale and his Democratic Senate colleagues ended funding for the Indochina War in the mid-1970s?
“What they were asking for, I can’t quite answer, but it would be closer to the Iraq Study Group — more of a nuanced feeling,” Mondale said. “I don’t think they want to pull out right now. Some do. But they see we’ve got to try to work something out in a responsible way.”
A minute earlier Cheney had walked by and nodded a mute greeting at Mondale. Not much warmth on display this day in the vice presidents-former vice presidents club.
'Not a time for payback'
Nearby Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn summed up for reporters what had gone on in the bipartisan Senate huddle in the old Senate chamber before the official session took place.
“If there was a singular message we heard today was that this is not a time for payback and retribution, nor even for looking back; this is a time for looking forward and trying to solve America’s problems,” Cornyn said.
Seeming to strike a similar note of making a virtue of being in the minority, House Republican Leader John Boehner said from the House rostrum right before handing the gavel to Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “This is the people’s Congress, and most people in America don’t care who controls it. What they want is a government that is limited, honest, accountable, and responsive to their needs. The moment a majority forgets this lesson, it begins writing itself a ticket to minority status.”
Over on the House side, at 10:30 members new and old began to file into the speaker’s lobby just off the House floor, to pick up their official voting card and red enamel-and-metal member’s pin (each one numbered on the back with that member’s rank in the House seniority).
Freshman Steve Cohen, the Tennessee Democrat elect to fill Harold Ford Jr.’s seat in Memphis, showed up to collect his pin and card and fielded a few questions. “Being sworn in to the House of Representatives is one of the highest honors a person in political life can have,” he said. “And for me it is especially so, as it comes later in life.”
How old are you? I asked.
“Fifty-seven” he replied. “But in a biological phenomenon, my mother is only 39,” he joked, adding that his mother wasn’t at all pleased when one newspaper printed her actual age.
A big lift for Gerlach
A minute later, Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach who survived a brutal re-election battle and managed to win while four of his Pennsylvania GOP colleagues were being defeated, walked in to collect his pin and card.
An ebullient Rep. Wally Herger the 11-term Republican from California, caught sight of Gerlach and shouted, “God bless you, brother!” and then proceeded to wrap his arms around Gerlach and lift him right off his feet.
Gerlach is no lightweight, so this was quite a lift.
Asked what the lesson he could apply now from having been in the House minority back in the early 1990s, Herger replied, “To begin with, someone once said, ‘the worst day in the majority is better than the best day in the minority.’ So you have to start with that one premise.”
He added, “What goes around comes around and it’s good always to treat people well when you’re in the majority ‘cause you never know when you’re going to be in the minority.”
Missouri Republican Jo Ann Emerson, elected in 1996, showed off her new pin to me and another reporter. “I’ve never gotten though a whole session of Congress without losing my pin,” she noted.
I suggested facetiously that perhaps the members’ pins ought to have a GPS device embedded in them so the member’s chief of staff always knows where to find him or her. No, that wasn’t a good idea at all, Emerson said.
A few minutes later, I spotted freshman Democrat John Hall from New York’s Dutchess County, struggling to pin his new pin to the lapel of his suit. “There’s a buttonhole there, but I can’t get it to go through” he told me.
This seemed like a moment for a good Samaritan, so I lent a hand, pinning on the pin, introducing myself, and wishing him luck as he strode on to the House just at noon.
He had an appointment with history, he explained, and he didn’t want to be late.
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