Exit Right

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DECEMBER 25, 2006

Exit Right

On December 8, the last working day of the twelve-year Republicanmajority, the legendarily tough and doughy-faced Ways and MeansCommittee chairman, Bill Thomas, used the time allotted him on theHouse floor for defending his huge tax-extension bill to saygoodbye. Thomas, who is retiring after nearly three decades inCongress, was not having a great week. In the middle ofnegotiations over his bill, he lost his office: Departing membershad to be out of their Hill offices before the lame-duck sessioneven began; after that, they were given a single cubicle and phonein a dank basement room to finish their legislative work, leadingThomas to freak out in a committee chairs' meeting. On the floor onFriday, Thomas succumbed fully to the Republican mood of anguisheddrama, noting darkly that some Republicans "have left willingly,some unwillingly" and weirdly suggesting that Maryland's BenCardin, leaving the House for the Senate, might be humming "free atlast." At the end of his speech, he burst into tears andproclaimed, "Mister Speaker, I relinquish my time, forever!"However, he was up talking again within minutes.

There are two ways to leave Washington after an electoral rout:graciously, with emphasis on your accomplishments; or mournfullyand in great confusion, as Virgil describes the ruling elitesabandoning Troy, wailing angrily and clutching at the doors oftheir lost palace. This generation of Republicans came here in 1994claiming they would never be seduced by power; but, after twelveyears in Washington, the wailing-and-clutching mood is theprevailing one. New York Representative John Sweeney, who watchedhis safe seat implode in the weeks leading up to November 7, hasnot even been able to show up for votes. According to his friendRepresentative Pete Sessions, he is in shock and has becomephysically ill from the experience of losing. It's hard not to getthe impression that what the Republicans need as they leave theHill is not fresh leadership or new ideas but a big, long hug.

Across Independence Avenue from the Capitol, at the Rayburn HouseOffice Building, movers buzz around the 181 House offices that haveto be switched before Christmas. The desks and lamps stackedhaphazardly along the walls make the building's coveted hallsresemble a discount furniture warehouse. In the basement, theoffice for defeated Republicans turns out to be located across fromthe Rayburn deli's kitchen, whose doors, in a final humiliation, areflung open, wafting nauseating frying-oil smells into the hall.

Around the corner from the office, I run into a wanlooking older manstanding alone by the elevator, wearing a white Oxford shirt and adark blazer, no tie. He looks familiar. "Are you [slaughteredPennsylvania Representative] Curt Weldon?" I ask. "I am!" he says,and then, "How did you know?"--which is now a very reasonablequestion in Weldon-land. He shakes my hand, then gives my shoulderan affectionate little squeeze. We chat about Ukraine, where heplans to travel on a foundation trip in January to help "sort outthe mess between Yanukovych and Yushchenko." As he boards hiselevator, Weldon turns back and says, "Really nice to meet you!"with one of the sincerest smiles I've ever seen. But we won't havethe chance to take a steak at Charlie Palmer together. Weldonleaves Washington tonight, around eleven o'clock.

A walk through Rayburn's main levels reveals evidence everywhere ofthe stages of grief. There is denial: Many defeated members haven'tfully cleared out their offices a week after their move-out date.On Rayburn's plush fourth floor, Kentucky Representative EdWhitfield has occupied drilling-in-national- parks enthusiastRichard Pombo's office anyway, and Pombo's stuff, includingbeautiful five-foot-wide panoramic photographs of his San JoaquinValley district, is piled up outside the door, as though a peevedgirlfriend had put him out on the curb. Someone could just throw afew garbage bags over the photos and make off with them. (Lootingis OK here: When word went out that fancy books memorializingRonald Reagan had been left outside departing FloridaRepresentative Clay Shaw's office, Republican aides rushed there tosnag one.) There is bargaining: Staffers on cell phones dot thehalls, whispering about their applications for the same few jobseverybody else wants; the popular phrase to describe the sorrystate of things seems to be "the situation." And anger: On thefirst floor of Rayburn, someone has torn the Capitol officedirectory down from the wall and ripped it into pieces. Viciouslyscribbled arrows point toward Mark Foley's name.

There is, however, one Republican in Washington who appearsunperturbed. Denny Hastert delivered his farewell speech in theHouse chamber at around seven o'clock that evening; placidlycheerful to the end, he reminds his colleagues that he never reallywanted this job and matter-of-factly praises the diligence of theCapitol Police, who, actually, have recently made the news fortheir staggering incompetence. Half the Democratic side of thechamber is empty, and some of those present are doodling on papersunderneath their desks. When Hastert finishes, Nancy Pelosi runs upand gives him--perhaps the one guy who doesn't need it--a sweetembrace. Then she gestures toward where she came from, as thoughshe wants the dour-faced men sitting with her to get up and mobHastert, or maybe for him to try out her seat, for giggles. ButHastert just remains behind his podium, his arms held slightly awayfrom his body, penguin- like, as the polite applause in the chamberslowly dies away.

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