Lawmakers prepare to get stuffed with stuffing

Thanksgiving became an official Capitol Hill holiday back in 1789, when George Washington himself acted on a mandate from both houses of Congress. The first president remarked that the day was a chance to ask God “to pardon our national and other transgressions.”
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Of course, it’s also a chance to eat, drink and be merry — not to mention to get the heck out of town. For lawmakers, the traditional turkey lately has been paired with the time-honored act of putting off until December what they couldn’t get done in time for recess.

The threat of a massive omnibus spending bill still could be averted this year, but a host of unfinished business means both chambers will be back next month, making Thanksgiving break the reward that sleep-deprived lawmakers and their bleary-eyed staffers have been dreaming of since summer.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who will be trekking to Little Rock for the holiday with his wife, Jill, and two children, prefers Thanksgiving togetherness to a mere plate of turkey and stuffing.

“Being with family” is Pryor’s favorite part of the festivities, he said. “We always try to spend Thanksgiving together. It’s much less commercialized than Christmas. The holiday season at the end of the year has too much pressure — it can be not very relaxing — but Thanksgiving is our time.”

Pryor has the added advantage of breaking bread with his understanding parents, who gained firsthand knowledge about the exhausting pace of Washington in the fall during his father’s time in the Senate. Cooking the communal meal will “probably be a team effort,” Pryor said. “My mom will do most of it.”

Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) is also heading home, to the West, for a massive family dinner, though he admitted that, between his wife and four daughters, the question of who will lead the kitchen effort “hasn’t been settled yet.”

Freshman Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) eagerly awaits his return to Auburn, Wash., just outside of Seattle, where wife Julie will happily give up the turkey-basting duties this year. While Mrs. Reichert usually cooks for Thanksgiving, the lawmaker said, her busy D.C. schedule as a volunteer White House and Capitol tour guide has made it hard to plan the menu.

On his Thanksgiving table, Reichert favors “pumpkin pie, with a little whipped cream.” He had better be vigilant to secure a second helping; the family dinner guests will include Reichert’s six brothers and sisters, three children, five grandchildren and his mother’s four siblings.

An abundance of guests is not Rep. Pat Tiberi’s (R-Ohio) Thanksgiving challenge. Instead, the first-generation Italian-American lawmaker faces an onslaught of high-calorie meals.

“We do lunch, the traditional meal, at my mom’s, and for dinner, have the same one all over again” with his wife’s family, Tiberi said. “It’s a big eating day.”

Even with all that starchy, sugary goodness, Tiberi said, the high point of his Thanksgiving is seeing extended family, which, “in this job, is very difficult.”

House International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), 81, will make a difficult trip this Thanksgiving, enduring an eight-hour-plus plane trip to South America, where he will lead a congressional delegation, or codel, to Brazil and Venezuela with several colleagues. Hyde will spend his post- Thanksgiving break with feisty Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Hopefully the meeting with the anti-American leader won’t leave him wishing he were squabbling over the last drumstick back home.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and his wife, Charlene, are steeped in hospitality this week, throwing open the doors of their McLean home to 50 family members, friends and even some office interns.

“Everyone is invited,” Lugar said of his Thanksgiving party, which the family has thrown each of the 29 Novembers since his election. The admiring husband praised his wife for capably managing the stressful details of holiday entertaining.

“Obviously, turkey and dressing” are Lugar’s favorite parts of the meal, he said, followed closely by “special vegetable dishes that people bring.” Unfortunately, Lugar declined to elaborate on the recipes that make vegetables so appealing.

Two of Lugar’s colleagues have the perfect solution to turkey-preparation hassles: Go out to eat. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and his newlywed bride, Julia, will be leaving the cleanup to professionals this year.

“We’re going to a fine Rhode Island establishment,” Reed said, declining to name the eatery. Enterprising lobbyists can wrangle face time with Reed tomorrow at the Providence Performing Arts Center, where he will spend Thanksgiving eve taking in “The Lion King.”

“I always look forward to going home” for Thanksgiving, said Reed, whose personal highlight is getting stuffed with stuffing. “I’m on a high-stuffing diet,” he cracked.

Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) will also take his turkey at a restaurant, inside the sprawling Longwood Gardens estate just over the Delaware-Pennsylvania border. The Thanksgiving buffet at Longwood, which was built by billionaire Pierre du Pont, offers “streusel-glazed sweet potatoes” and two fondues for dessert.

Carper should feel free to splurge on calories; the svelte lawmaker plans to participate in a run-walk footrace earlier on Thanksgiving Day to benefit multiple-sclerosis research, then serve turkey to some folks back in his home state, according to spokesman Bill Ghent.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving, when most Americans either flip on the TV or hit the malls for Christmas shopping, Carper and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) will depart for a weeklong codel to the Middle East, accompanied by several House members. The lawmakers will stop in Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Amid the mad rush of anticipation and late work hours that precede every Thanksgiving recess, some Hill denizens put off planning until the very last minute. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said he was “hugely” looking forward to his dinner but had no idea where he would be eating it.

“We’ve been a little busy around here,” Conrad observed dryly, hustling into a meeting.

Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.) also couldn’t be bothered to talk turkey in the thick of the budget-reconciliation debate.

“No, I have to run to a meeting,” she said brusquely when asked of her Thanksgiving Day plans.