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Politics News

Taking the Hill: Inside Congress


With more than 30,000 employees and 535 legislators between the House and Senate, the U.S. Capitol complex is like a city unto itself. Months ago, NBC News received permission to flood the Hill with cameras for a day-in-the-life documentary shoot. What no one knew at the time is that the Capitol would be in the midst of grinding talks over the national debt while we were there. This slideshow consists of photos taken while dozens of NBC TV cameras roamed the buildings and grounds this past Wednesday, July 27. The resulting documentary, "Taking the Hill: Inside Congress," airs Sunday, July 31 at 7 p.m. ET.

As the day begins, Brian Williams, anchor of NBC's "Nightly News" and host of "Inside Congress," waits for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to emerge from the Memorial Doors after his arrival at the Capitol. Speaker Boehner was under immense pressure to deliver enough Republican votes to pass his debt-ceiling plan and it showed in his demeanor.

Initially, it was thought that Boehner's plan would come up for a vote on the House floor the day we were there. But it was held back after questions emerged over how much money it would actually save. The next day, it was tabled again, reportedly over fears it didn't have enough support among Boehner's Republican colleagues.

For Boehner and his House and Senate colleagues, the Capitol building is where much of the nation's business gets done. Few who visit fail to be impressed by the building's giant dome, which looms over Washington, D.C. The building's initial design was chosen through a competition with a $500 prize. William Thorton, a physician, submitted the winning drawing and construction began in 1793 when President George Washington laid the cornerstone. It has been a work in progress ever since.

In the Rotunda, , which sits under the dome, a statue of Abraham Lincoln appears to be pointing at Capitol police officers. The Rotunda, which was designed to emulate the Roman Pantheon, boasts statues and busts and large-scale works of art. Members of the Capitol police force are never far from view in and around the Capitol, with more than 1,500 of them protecting congressional buildings and parks.

The circle on the Rotunda floor is the physical center-point of the Capitol, a midpoint between the House and Senate wings. The Rotunda is considered a neutral zone of sorts, the Switzerland of the building. To pull off NBC's day-in-the-life of Congress documentary, more than 80 crew members descended on the Capitol, including producers (like Subrata De, seen with Williams), camera operators and lighting and sound technicians.

The Capitol Dome, which sits above the Rotunda, was designed by Charles Bulfinch in 1824, but it was soon considered too small for the rest of the building and a fire hazard. Thomas Walter redesigned the dome in the 1850s, causing a frenzy among congressmen delighted by Walter's more grandiose vision. Today, the area inside the dome measures 180 feet top to bottom.

Williams waits for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, to exit the Senate floor. By his side is Ken Strickland, deputy bureau chief for NBC News in Washington, D.C., and former Senate producer for NBC. Strickland is explaining that cameras are never allowed to shoot the doors of the Senate.

Later, in Reid's office, the senator shows off a painting of Las Vegas as it used to be: a cowboy town. When asked about Rep. Boehner and the debt negotiations, Sen. Reid said the House Speaker had "painted himself into this corner that makes our job over here much more difficult."

You never know who you'll come across when walking around the congressional complex. Here, Max Page, the young actor who played mini-Darth Vader in a Super Bowl car commercial, offers his autograph to Williams. Page has a heart defect and was on Capitol Hill to lobby against cuts to health care funding.

Rep. Kristi Noem, a Republican of South Dakota, is a first-year member and a rising star in the Tea Party. Interviewed in the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria by Williams, Noem is considered by some to be the "next Sarah Palin." In 1997, she received the South Dakota Oustanding Young Farmer award.

Just above Speaker Boehner's desk sits a motivational plaque that reads, "It CAN be done." As the NBC team neared Boehner's office, the smell of smoke was unmistakable, a rare occurrence in the nation's increasingly health-conscious capital. Boehner's smoking habit is well-known but he's rarely caught on camera with a cigarette in his mouth.

With the debt negotiations roiling his caucus, Boehner told Williams that "no one ever said it would be pretty." When asked if it was fair to say he had a bit of a rebellion on his hands, Boehner replied that this was nothing unusual. "I've got a little rebellion on my hands every day. It comes with the terrority," he said.

The view from the Speaker's Balcony is one of the best in Washington, D.C. In the distance, the Washington Monument rises above the National Mall.

An avid golfer, Boehner has a bowl of tees in his office with "Speaker John Boehner" stamped on them. A recent round of golf with President Obama failed to produce an agreement that could pass the House.

The Capitol complex is connected by underground tunnels and subways. Here, Williams is escorted from a House office building to the Capitol by a police officer.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., greets tourists in Statuary Hall. The hall is comprised of statues donated by individual states to honor prominent people.

Pelosi has gone from being minority leader to speaker of the House and now back to minority leader again, as the House of Representatives changed hands between Republicans and Democrats.

Leaders in Congress, such as the speaker of the House and the majority leader, have offices in the Capitol and also in the nearby congressional office buildings. When power shifts between the parties, one of the most visible signs of the switch is when the Capitol offices change hands.

Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., assumed the role of majority leader this year after Republicans knocked Democrats out of power in the 2010 elections. His breed of economic conservatism is ascendant in the Republican Party.

A close-up of the "Cantor Rule:" "Are my efforts addressing job creation and the economy? Are they reducing spending? Are they shrinking the size of the federal government while protecting and expanding liberty? If not, why am I doing it... Why are WE doing it?"

Staffers line the halls outside Cantor's office. With office space in short supply, desks are squeezed wherever there is room.

Certain elevators on both the House and Senate side are reserved for members of Congress only or people they invite. The purpose is to allow easy travel to the floor for votes. In recent years, some senators have complained that too many staffers, lobbyists and even tourists have been riding the Senate-only elevators.

Antoine Sanfuentes

Rep. Stenny Hoyer, D-Md., is the house minority whip; the person responsible for ensuring discipline among his party's legislators. The position requires deep political skills and countless hours of arm-twisting, cajoling and counting votes.

Hoyer is a graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, whose mascot is the terrapin, a species of turtle. He displays a number of turtles in his office and says these are only a portion of his total collection.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is the Republican minority leader in the Senate, an institution whose filibusters and holds and other arcane procedures often slow the legislative process. During the interview, Williams asked McConnell, a fiscal conservative, why "rich folks" shouldn't pay more in taxes to help reduce the debt. "They do. They pay an extraordinary amount more," McConnell said. "In fact, about half of Americans don't pay any income taxes at all."

Members and staffers receive an economic briefing from Jared Bernstein, who served as the chief economist for Vice President Joe Biden until earlier this year. Experts for both Republicans and Democrats can be seen all over the Hill, testifying in hearings as well as giving closed- and open-door briefings.

The “three amigos” Sens. Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman and John McCain maintain what is becoming an endangered species in Congress: a deep friendship that crosses partisan lines. These kinds of relationships are crucial during tense negotiations like the debt talks.

The Senate subway speeds senators and staffers to and from the Capitol building and the Senate office buildings. For reporters, the subway platforms can be great places to buttonhole legislators who would rather avoid questions. For legislators, they provide quick access to the Capitol for votes and a convenient way to leave at the end of a long day.