LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Approaching a holiday with a Congress approaching a deadline brings back lots of memories for me of covering that august body. Back in the day, we did quite a bit of hanging out in the marble halls of Congress waiting for the House and Senate to complete their work, usually on appropriations bills. All kinds of things can hang up the process - money for highways, public works - but we assumed then that the Congress would fight it out, then figure out; finally produce a full set of appropriation bills and go home. Fussing, followed by compromise was the way things worked. Who can remember what the hang-ups were? Actually, lots of people can. But what I'm thinking about is what happened while members and staff and members of the press waited and waited - and it got to be December and then December 20th. At some point, we simply had to get critical holiday things done. There was 1987, when the 100th Congress finally closed down December 22nd. The 102nd blew right through the holidays and returned on January 3rd, 1992. Here are some of the things I remember from those end-of-session cliffhangers: people sitting on the phone trying to shop from catalogs, which was a good deal more complicated without computers. People gathered around a big table in the House radio-TV gallery wrapping presents. We shared paper and ribbon brought from home or purchased in the Senate stationery store. Then we trekked down to the Capitol post office, which was open whenever Congress was in session, to mail the packages. One good thing: late nights, no lines. I remember one long winter's night when we had the door to the gallery above the Senate chamber propped open, and suddenly we began to hear faraway voices singing carols. It was the middle of the night and demonstrators on the steps of the Capitol had switched to singing. But the time we all remember was the year that the Speaker of the House decided that if the president didn't see it his way, he'd shut the government down, and then did. That was 1995. The speaker was Newt Gingrich. The shutdown lasted almost a month, but then it was over. Looking back, that faceoff seems kind of like kids' stuff compared to what we're looking at today, where philosophy is the issue. It's tough to split the difference and all sides are dug in.
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WERTHEIMER: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.