In Congress, the freshmen often appear to be in control

McClatchy Washington BureauOctober 8, 2013 

— Tim Kaine is a man of many titles: former governor of Virginia, former mayor of Richmond, Va., and former chair of the Democratic National Committee.

But as a freshman in the U.S. Senate, Kaine has earned the title of “Mr. Monday and Friday,” because it’s on those days you’ll find him sitting, gavel in hand, in a big brown chair presiding over the Senate.

“The senators who might be traveling, they like to almost always put me in to preside the first thing Monday when the week opens up and then at the end of the week if they need somebody to preside on Saturday,” Kaine said. “I’m a Virginian and I’m a freshman, so that means that’s my job.”

They are called “Mister Speaker” or “Madam Speaker” or “Mister President” or “Madam President,” though they aren’t House Speaker John Boehner or the president of the Senate. Presiding is viewed as an honor or a hazing-like rite of passage, as evidenced by the number of freshman and junior senators who drew the late shift during Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 21-hour, 19-minute speech two weeks ago.

“There are so many rules, exceptions and history,” said Kaine, who was in the chair between 9 and 11 p.m. during Cruz’s talk-a-thon. “There’s a ‘Roberts Rules of Order’ you can read for Richmond City Council meetings, a simple rulebook for the Senate of Virginia. I think you have to do this for a very long time here before you feel like you’re the master of situations. No matter how long you preside here, you’re going to be leaning on staff pretty heavily.”

But wielding the gavel isn’t for everyone. Many Congress members have little patience for the minutiae and machinations of legislating, with its cloture votes, motions to commit, quorum calls and seemingly endless parade of one-minute speeches.

Some revel in it, saying they enjoy the challenge of trying to master the parliamentary ways of their chambers and getting a birds-eye view of their colleagues’ legislative and debating skills.

“It takes a certain temperament to be a presiding officer,” said Anne Thorsen, director of floor operations for Boehner’s office. “You have to be very objective, have a poker face, as I call it, and be very even-tempered and measured in the chair. You have to know how to listen to the parliamentarian.”

The love-hate relationship with presiding sometimes splits along family lines. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., enjoyed it. The late Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., didn’t.

“Robert Kennedy wasn’t a legislative branch man,” said Senate Historian Don Ritchie. “Robert Kennedy did sit up there, but he was antsy, it didn’t suit him. Ted Kennedy wanted to know how the system worked.”

Edward Kennedy was presiding in the Senate on Nov. 22, 1963, when his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Ritchie said.

Unless there’s a major debate, the most junior senators of the majority party preside in the Senate. It’s a job that can be action-packed, with the president serving as traffic cop – with ample assistance from the Senate parliamentarian – on debate time and amendments.

But more often than not, legislation is stalled and the Senate spends considerable time in quorum calls – quiet periods when there is no visible floor action while senators work out their disagreements in the background.

Quorum calls can last for minutes or hours, leaving the presiding officer to his or her devices to overcome the dull lull.

“I always had a book,” said former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash.

To encourage presiders, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., and Senate Secretary Francis Valeo in the late 1960s came up with the Golden Gavel, a prize presented to senators who logged 100 hours in the president’s chair during a single session of Congress.

Gorton, a senator from 1981 to 2001, is the chamber’s iron man with a hard-to-break record six Golden Gavels, according to Ritchie’s office. Gorton insists that he has seven.

“I found it to be an interesting way to hear from my colleagues, so I was a happy volunteer,” he said.

On his way to collecting the gavels, Gorton tried to become so proficient in Senate rules and procedures that he wouldn’t have to lean on the parliamentarian.

“I very much liked the parliamentarian, but whenever I could I tried to get ahead of what he told me to do,” he said.

Former Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., who filled Barack Obama’s seat after he became president, was only in office 22 months, but he made sure to earn two Golden Gavels before returning to Chicago.

“Absolutely, they’re on display in my den right now,” Burris said. “I showed them to my college classmate from Howard University law school recently. He said ‘Wow, is that real gold?’”

On the House side of the Capitol, presiding officers are recruited and selected by the speaker’s office.

Boehner has a corps of nearly 30 House Republicans who are capable of handling legislative floor activity. That bench shrinks if bills are particularly tricky, and to about a dozen if especially politically contentious legislation hits the floor.

That go-to team includes Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.

“This is the U.S. House of Representatives, anybody who has the privilege of presiding and hearing different people debate on different things, that in and of itself is a plus,” Hastings said. “I’ve always been one that likes presiding, back to my high school . . . so it sort of comes naturally to me.”

Newer House members interested in presiding have to perform off-Broadway before getting a prime-time spot at the rostrum.

They are given the gavel during low-pressure periods of the legislative day such as morning business, when members line up and deliver one-minute speeches to a largely empty House chamber. Those who pass muster are slowly worked into presiding rotation and given more challenging assignments.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., has made the leap from one-minutes to regular floor action.

“I wanted to do it to better prepare me for the debate side of things,” said Meadows, a freshman. “It’s something you can’t take lightly. It’s been a learning experience for me.”

Email: wdouglas@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter @williamgdouglas

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