Congress' biggest floor fight over office space

Aside from issues, talk behind closed Capitol doors is over prime location

Material World

January 05, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Tucked away on the third floor of the Capitol, behind the gallery occupied by television reporters and through a door that is always closed, is a world tourists never see: a labyrinth of hallways, staircases and unmarked offices. These are some of the Senate's fabled hideaways, among the choicest real estate Washington has to offer.

Each senator has a personal office in one of six buildings connected to the Capitol either by subway or by underground maze. But some also have hideaways -- small private offices inside the splendor of the Capitol itself. Others have precious space inside the Capitol by dint of their leadership positions or committee chairmanships.

Every two years, as their Senate colleagues are defeated or retire, some of the most powerful men and women in America begin a "Kabuki dance," in the words of one aide, in which they gingerly -- and sometimes not so gingerly -- negotiate with one another for these spots.

Now that dance promises to be more intense than ever. The Capitol is losing precious space, including part of the House minority leader's office and 11 hideaway offices, some with prized eastward views of the Supreme Court, while a new visitors' center is built. At the same time, some of the most elaborate hideaways are up for grabs with the retirement of senior senators like Republicans Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

"It's akin to having a handful of front-row seats to a U2 concert, but unlimited requests," says Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who as the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee is in charge of parceling out real estate to his colleagues. "People never want to give up space."

Among those losing prime spots in the Capitol is Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader, who must cede his elegantly appointed second-floor suite to the new leader, Bill Frist. Frist's aides say he is likely to give up his own hideaway, but there is no word yet on whether Lott will move into Frist's old space.

Other senior senators are also being displaced, including Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, who Dodd said was temporarily losing his hideaway to construction, and Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, who is losing his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, and his Capitol office with it.

Byrd has occupied an extraordinarily beautiful suite, resplendent with frescoes by Constantino Brumidi, the Italian artist often called the Michelangelo of the Capitol. Sen. Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, is moving in. It will be up to Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who will become chairman of the Rules Committee, to decide where Byrd will reside.

"It's a very delicate matter," said Eric Ueland, the committee's incoming chief of staff. "I hesitate to talk about it."

In the House, meanwhile, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert has ordered the Library of Congress to close its office in the basement of the Capitol, to make room for the staff of Nancy Pelosi, the new minority leader.

Just as luxury cars symbolize fame and fortune in Los Angeles, and a Park Avenue apartment hints at wealth in New York, a Capitol office is a hallmark of what Washington cherishes most: power. So not all lawmakers take well to moving.

When Democrats took control of the Senate nearly 18 months ago, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, got the majority whip's office: a majestic high-ceilinged suite with crystal chandeliers, gilded mirrors and working marble fireplaces. The location is also perfect: just 30 paces from the Senate chamber.

Reid took the office, which once belonged to John F. Kennedy, from the Republican whip, Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma. But Nickles balked at moving to the first-floor office that had been the traditional home of the minority party's whip. So Dodd found room for him on the third floor of the Capitol, displacing the Senate's sergeant-at-arms in the process.

The leadership offices are always elegant, but hideaways, which are awarded strictly by seniority, run the gamut. There are 70 to 80 by some estimates, though the precise figure is a well-kept secret.

Some of them are plain cubbyholes in grim basement corridors, with barely enough room for a desk and some chairs. Others are regal, like the one occupied by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, which features plush green carpet, family memorabilia and a coffee table made from the wooden rudder of one of his boats.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, has a hideaway with a window that forms a perfect frame around the Washington Monument. He also has a working fireplace.

"What more could a Vermonter want?" he said.

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