What’s It Like To Be In The Senate Chambers For The Impeachment Trial? Our Reporter Tells All

January 25, 2020
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., right, speaks to reporters outside the Senate chamber during a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., right, speaks to reporters outside the Senate chamber during a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.Julio Cortez/AP Photo
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., right, speaks to reporters outside the Senate chamber during a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.

No talking, no electronics, no drinks except for water and milk and hours of monologues from a rotating cast of House impeachment managers and White House lawyers for hours on end, with few interruptions.

For some, this might have all the makings of a horror movie.

But this is reality, six days a week, for 100 senators as the chamber grinds through the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. 

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said he’s coping well with the long hours and the lack of a smartphone.

“I feel very privileged to be here at this moment when our democracy is on trial and our democracy is at risk," he said.

The oldest Senator in the chamber, 86-year-old Dianne Feinstein of California, said “so far, so good.”

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia says he copes with the long days by “taking notes and thinking about questions” he wants to ask.

Note-taking is what I’ve also seen Bennet and fellow Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner doing each time I drop in to catch up on the action — or inaction — in the chamber.

If you’ve been watching from elsewhere in the country, you’re stuck with the unwavering view of the TV cameras, focused unblinkingly on the speaker at the dias. The rest of the chamber may as well not exist. But those of us in the viewing gallery, mostly reporters and the general public (which recently included former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist), can look down at the senators sitting at their desks, most of which are cluttered with papers, binders and a notepad, scribbling away throughout the different presentations.

There were no milk sightings on either Bennet or Gardner’s desk. I did spy an empty glass on Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s desk on the first day. Since then, others have ordered a glass or two, following the Senate’s much-reported prohibition on nearly all other beverages. 

Water, not milk, is the choice for Bennet, who said the last time he had milk was when he was living at his mom’s house. Kaine jokingly said it was “too healthy.”

But health claims, accurate or not, are part of the reason it’s allowed in the Senate chamber, at least according to Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy. He told reporters on Wednesday that in the 1950s, it was thought to help peptic ulcers.

“So, the senators were allowed to drink milk because they had ulcers,” he explained.

(The Senate Historian had a different, and significantly less delightful, explanation.)

Less healthy, but better for keeping people awake, is the candy drawer at Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey’s desk. This has been a tradition going back to the 1960s. “Real” food isn’t allowed, so people head to the desk for a snack or a little chocolate pick-me-up. 

Bennet admitted to hitting the drawer.

“I had some Hot Tamales,” he said. “They were really good.”

I could see Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina sneaking some sunflower seeds. He told reporters they “keep you alert and allow me to listen.”

A few senators have seemed to nap at different points during the trial, especially when the day before stretched into the early morning hours. Roll Call reporters spied Gardner dropping off an unopened energy drink at one colleague’s desk. 

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Caitlyn Kim reports: Supposedly this was full about an hour ago. Journalists ... we’re a bunch of vultures!

On my way out of the chamber today, I saw Cotton lift open his desk and take out a purple fidget spinner, and well, spin. Sen. Richard Burr reportedly gifted the toy to his colleagues to help with the restlessness.

The chamber is dotted with empty chairs throughout the day. The senators aren’t chained to their desks — they can come and go. More often than not, I see them ducking into the cloakroom, where presumably they check their phones or grab some food, coffee or any other drink they please. 

Bennet’s one of the lucky ones when it comes to desk assignments. He sits in the back row, where it’s easier for senators to stand and stretch their legs when they need to. Sen. Mitt Romney is another senator we can often see standing behind his chair. Others will walk to the back and lean against the wall, as Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, one current and two former democratic nominees for president, did on Thursday.

It’s fair to say that even if Fitbits, which urge you to get 250 steps an hour, were allowed in the chamber these days, they’d be quite unhappy with their wearers.

And as for the no talking rule? Some senators will pass notes back and forth. I saw Gardner ask a page to pass one to Sen. Lamar Alexander. But many other senators have been seen whispering to one another, despite the proclaimed “pain of imprisonment.”

You won’t be surprised to find that no senator has been imprisoned for talking.

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