Inauguration frustration

Mention inauguration ticket requests to most any member of Congress, and the reaction is comparable to a migraine.

Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) groan and give nearly identical, wide-eyed looks of exasperation.

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) declares, “We’re going crazy.”

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) jokes she is approaching the situation “with medication.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) confesses, “We don’t know what to do.”

As if the auto bailout package hasn’t given lawmakers enough to worry about this holiday season, requests for tickets to the January inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama have flooded into the Capitol since Election Day. Lawmakers are now grasping for guidance and drafting elaborate plans to distribute the precious few inauguration tickets to the clamoring hordes.

Each House lawmaker receives 200; each senator receives 400.

Of the 31 lawmakers who spoke to The Hill about inauguration tickets, 16 said their requests number into the thousands. On the high end, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said her office has taken approximately 30,000 requests for tickets, and Nelson estimated his staff has received 20,000 inquiries.

The issue is already a thorn in the side of Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who introduced legislation last week to prohibit the selling and counterfeiting of inauguration tickets. Prior to that, reports had circulated that tickets were being advertised online for as much as $40,000. (Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., kidded that his office was selling its allotment of tickets. “I’m even putting mine up for sale. I’ve gotten an offer of $150,000,” he said before quickly adding, “That was all a joke.”)

Aside from her legislation, Feinstein could offer her colleagues no advice on how to distribute the highly sought-after tickets.

“I think it’s up to everybody,” she said, adding that most of the roughly 40,000 tickets the Senate receives are for standing room only. “It’s a very hard situation,” she said.

In that spirit, lawmakers offered an array of answers when asked how they would dole out the golden stubs.

Several members said they were strictly following a first-come, first-served system, while others said they would set up a lottery. Members of the Tennessee, North Dakota, Connecticut and Arkansas delegations said they would pool their tickets with state colleagues to distribute the passes in the fairest way.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), meanwhile, is being craftier about her ticket distribution system. “I’m busy working some of my Republican colleagues to ask them to feel my pain,” she said in explaining that she hopes they will hand over some of their tickets so she can accommodate as many of her roughly 2,000 ticket requests as possible.

“So far they don’t seem to be sympathetic,” she said.

But McCaskill is not giving up. “I’m working every angle.”

Other members said they are sorting through groups of constituents they feel deserve high priority.

Hutchison said she plans to give preference to “the African-American leaders in our state.” Harman and Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) said they plan to bump local elected officials to the top of the request list, a move that, in Harman’s case, might come at the expense of her relatives. She said she “probably won’t even be able to accommodate all my family that wants to come.”

Richardson said she would prioritize the “seniors” in her district “who have waited their lifetimes for this.” Otherwise, she hopes to distribute the tickets equitably among the cities in her Southern California district.

Once those special considerations are taken, members of Congress still have to sort through the thousands of other people who requested tickets. Harman said her office is requiring that people prove they have a way to get to Washington and a place to stay before they request tickets so that the office only receives serious inquiries. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), too, said she is vetting her requests, making sure only Alaskans are calling her office for tickets.

“We’re Alaska; we’re almost the farthest away,” Murkowski said, nearly in disbelief of the approximately 1,600 requests her office has received for inauguration tickets. She still hasn’t decided whether she will give out tickets on a first-come, first-served basis, through a lottery, or another method. Murkowski and other lawmakers share the ultimate hope that organizers will make more tickets available or add events and venues.

Ticket requests have also inundated the delegation from Hawaii, the state where Obama was born and spent part of his childhood. Of the more than 1,000 people who have contacted Sen. Daniel Akaka’s (D) office for tickets, some people have asked for priority by saying they went to school with the future president, spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyk said in an e-mail. He said the office has received a number of random international calls for tickets owing to the fact that Akaka’s last name appears first in the alphabetical Senate phone list. “Someone from Canada called in with the not-so-modest request of 56 tickets,” Broder Van Dyk said. “We even got a stray call from a foreign embassy looking for tickets.

The same goes for the Sen. Daniel Inouye’s (D-Hawaii) office. One bold constituent requested 20 tickets (he likely won’t get them).

“My understanding is some offices will get more and some offices will get less,” said Mike Yuen, Inouye’s spokesman. Yuen also confirmed that the Hawaii delegation has been overwhelmed by interest in the inauguration; more than 500 people requesting more than 1,000 tickets have contacted the office. Yuen said having Hawaii connections is a plus, though he remarked that it hasn’t stopped people from say, Nebraska, from calling.

Many lawmakers were quick to follow their expressions of bewilderment with excitement for the event’s unprecedented popularity.

“We’re extremely proud to be so overwhelmed,” said Lincoln, explaining that her goal is “to get as many Arkansans” to the inauguration “as we possibly can.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said his office has received roughly 3,000 ticket requests. “It shouldn’t be underestimated how good [Obama’s election] has made people feel,” he said.

Richardson also called the grand-scale interest in Obama’s inauguration a welcome problem.

“We want this,” she said. “We’ve had apathy for years.”

Nevertheless, lawmakers are still in a bind about how to distribute the few inauguration tickets they have. Sen.-elect Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who is receiving ticket requests through his House office, said while he welcomes the overwhelming response, “to have to be King Solomon will ultimately be a challenge.”

Harman plans to hold a reception the day before inauguration for those of her constituents whom she had to turn down.

And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said his office has received somewhere around 6,000 ticket requests, acknowledged that he won’t be able to please all those hoping to see Obama being sworn in as the 44th U.S. president.

“We’re going to make somebody mad,” he said.

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