The agony of defeat

It has not been a pretty sight on Capitol Hill in the waning hours of Republican control.

Once-powerful lawmakers have been shown the door at their own offices, forced to crowd in a basement or other nooks to finish their work, if not their careers. The usual backslapping has given way to back pats as colleagues try to comfort losers who will soon be going home.

Historic hallways are jammed with desks, leather sofas, chairs, lamps, metal file cabinets and cardboard file boxes, part of a massive office shuffle that will continue when the lame-duck Congress finishes, probably Friday. Rubbermaid trash bins holding office garbage bear signs saying "Do Not Remove."

Happy Democrats are trying not to gloat too much, although their giddiness is not always well concealed. Witness Sen. Charles Schumer, the Senate Democrats’ campaign chief, strolling onto the floor with a gleeful call to a colleague and both fists pumped in the air.

Their time will come in January, when Democrats take control and settle into comfier digs. To the victors go the suites, or at least the sweetest spaces, with some exceptions.

Republicans who will be back in January are adjusting to life in the minority, a rude shock for many who were part of the rising class of 1994 and have only known what it is like to be on top.

Ruder still, of course, is the adjustment by dozens to personal defeat and the uncertainty of life after Washington, the place they disparaged in campaigns but enjoyed for its power and perks.

Defeated Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, bore arguably the longest face in the Senate when members returned for their first vote since the election. With his characteristic pile of folders under one arm, DeWine entered the chamber through the center doors and headed down the aisle. His gait slowed, then stopped, as he looked into the well.

All around him, colleagues were giving sympathetic pats to the backs of others turned out of office — George Allen of Virginia and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania among them. As if carrying the weight of all the defeated, DeWine paused in midaisle. Someone put an arm around him. DeWine looked down and shook his head.

"There is no question that when an elected official loses an election, no matter what the circumstances were or no matter how difficult the district is, there is some kind of feeling of rejection," said former GOP Rep. Bill Frenzel of Minnesota. "In some cases it’s quite strong. In some cases they rise above it fairly quickly."

The reverberations go beyond lawmakers and encompass staff. In elevators, they whisper about job searches. Around Capitol Hill, quick seating can be found at lunch spots that are ordinarily packed — the buzz of routine now diminished, to return in the new year.

Democrats picked up more than 30 seats in the House and Senate, knocking off committee chairmen and congressional veterans and newcomers alike. Other members gave up their seats to run for governor or the Senate, or because under GOP-imposed term limits they could not have continued to serve as a committee chairman even if Republicans had retained control.

Thanks to the election, the Senate will have a new candy man or woman next year. The defeated Santorum was keeper of the desk that is traditionally the source of sweets for senators coming into the chamber. He stocked it with Hershey chocolates from his state as well as jellybeans and candy corn.

Come the new year, the Democratic rise to power will be reflected in the agenda. Right now, it is most evident in the office shuffle.

About 180 offices in the House will be moved over 21 days, with workers — some on staff, others brought in from the outside — laboring six days a week and aiming to swap 10 offices a day.

The goal is to finish by Christmas. Congress reconvenes Jan. 4.

Election losses make new offices available every two years. First dibs on that space went to House members with designs on more spacious settings and according to their seniority. Newly elected members chose offices by lottery on Nov. 17.

A similar seniority system is at work in the Senate, where the shuffle is expected to spill over into January.

Some of the best real estate in the House is going to the speaker.

The incoming speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California, is breaking with longstanding tradition by moving herself and staff into plush offices that her predecessor, Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., occupied. The Capitol suite includes a balcony with grand views of the National Mall and the monuments to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Over the years, previous Democratic leaders were content in offices that faced the Supreme Court, leaving the Mall vista for Republican leaders past and present. But the view of the court has been overtaken by a construction zone.

Those leaving because of defeat or retirement worked from temporary quarters in the Rayburn office building or found other space, such as in committee staff offices. Retiring Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, lost his longtime office in Rayburn even while trying to finish work on a tax extension bill that was the main obstacle to bringing the 109th Congress to an end.

That frustration aside, Thomas was finishing on a high note. On Wednesday, red, white and blue balloons bobbed around the room where he held his last monthly meeting with committee members, and chocolate frosted cake was served. It was his 65th birthday.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press