The unseen workers who guided the Senate through marathon nominee sessions

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The U.S. Capitol Building is lit at sunset in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2016.   Joshua Roberts/Reuters - RTX2VXU3

The U.S. Senate held rare back-to-back overnight sessions this week. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

For senators, it was ultimately symbolic. For dozens of Capitol Hill workers, it was a relative nightmare.

The Senate held rare back-to-back overnight sessions this week as Democrats worked to prove their opposition with a speech-a-thon against two of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees. Republicans were focused on getting those nominees — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — in their jobs as quickly as possible.

In the end, it did not affect a single vote on a single nominee: Both were confirmed to Trump’s cabinet.

But the 57-hour marathon did dramatically upend the lives of dozens of Senate workers, the kind of mostly middle-class Americans both parties say they care about most.

From Monday at noon EST, when the session began, to Wednesday night at 9 p.m. EST, when it ended, several key offices with small handfuls of workers struggled to keep all functions of the Capitol staffed, find places for workers to sleep and provide food to those who could not go home.

Over the course of the sessions, NewsHour talked with these people who helped keep the Senate running:

  • Stenographers: The small corps of men and women, who record remarks (while standing) on the Senate floor, worked through most of the session with just minutes of sleep. The intense job requires rotations every 15 minutes, followed by significant time reviewing and finalizing notes. That meant almost no rest for the group of just over half-a-dozen staffers who do the job.
  • Transcribers and closed-captioning staff: These groups have even smaller numbers and similarly saw little rest for nearly three days.
  • Subway drivers: The small train taking senators underground from the Capitol to the Russell Office building kept running throughout the debates. For many of its drivers, that meant 12 or 16-hour shifts, but a lack of staff meant at least one driver who spoke to NewsHour worked 30 hours straight, sleeping a few minutes at a time on a chair in a nearby locker room.
  • Doorkeepers: the three dozen men and women who watch the entryways of the Senate also worked through the nights in shifts.
  • Capitol Police: those assigned to the Senate worked 16 hours on, eight hours off during the debates.

The 57-hour-and-five-minute marathon appears to be the third-longest unbroken session in known Senate history, following a 1988 debate over campaign spending and the 1960 civil rights debate. Records of such debates go back to 1915, on a list compiled by the Senate Historical Office.

In addition, it was one of just eight times in U.S. history when the chamber stayed in session through two back-to-back overnights.

Along the way, several offices brought in cots. Staffers kept pillows at their desks. And some bosses stacked up boxes of Gatorade, soda and water in a scene more common to a weather crisis than a political one.

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