Empty subway cars trundle from the Capitol to the office buildings with a whoosh straight out of a Star Wars movie. Footfalls reverberate loudly off the white-stone walls in the Russell Building. Gilded elevators bong and open their doors—no need for the usual Senate two-step because there's no one inside.
While the Senate was open for business this weekend, all the activity attending a normal legislative session was largely absent.
It was so quiet that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had time to squeeze in a regular doctor's appointment with a physician in the Capitol.
An aide said that some reporters thought Reid was secretly heading to House Speaker John Boehner's office, or perhaps to meet with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But this was just a regular checkup—and nothing's the matter with Reid, the aide said.
For McConnell, the sluggish schedule afforded him a chance to get back to Kentucky, where he faces stout political opposition on the right from businessman Matt Bevin, and the left from Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. That he wasn't in the Capitol also suggests the level of disagreement between chambers and the difficulty of a deal.
"He is meeting with constituents, but remains in contact with his members and is available if a vote is called at any time this weekend," said spokesman Michael Brumas in an email.
Many of the senators in the Capitol were junior Democratic members, tapped to preside over the Senate. For example, Freshman Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who caucuses with Democrats, rushed onto the subway from Dirksen, prepared to give a floor speech, then preside over the chamber.
But there were Republicans, too. Sen Mike Lee of Utah sparred over the shutdown from the well of the Senate with his Democratic colleagues, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine offered a proposal she thought could serve as a political escape hatch for both sides, repealing the medical device tax (for Republicans) and offering agencies flexibility in applying sequestration cuts (for Democrats).
There were no votes Saturday, but there was partisan rhetoric from the floor. Clearly exasperated at how dug in her colleagues are, yet still optimistic about breaking the impasse, Collins suggested sheathing the rhetorical daggers.
"I think the more people who are willing to put ideas out there—and if not mine, someone else's—the better," Collins said.
The Senate returns at 2 p.m. Monday, with votes on judicial nominees later in the evening. The Senate might also take up the House-passed mini-continuing resolution providing for back-pay for federal workers, aides say.
But Democrats and Republicans will also pick up the fight over the shutdown where they left off—dug in as ever.
"This isn't a date to the prom," Reid said recently, explaining why Democrats won't offer Republicans a face-saving provision. "This is our country."
This article appears in the October 7, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.