Staffers rework Christmas plans as Senate plays chicken on healthcare

Hundreds of Senate staffers are reworking holiday plans because of the possible Christmas Eve healthcare vote.

As both parties dig in their heels, staffers are struggling to shift their travel schedules at the last moment.

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Many face the possibility of not finding a last-second flight or losing the money they’ve paid for non-refundable flights. For others, the prospect of a lonely Christmas in Washington away from their families is increasingly possible.

“I made plans last summer to be with my whole family for Christmas,” said one Democratic staff member, “but I told my mom we're on hold right now, and I guess I'll deal with my ticket as soon as I know something.

“I think I can change it without paying too much, I'm just worried there won't be any flights left by the time I get there. I mean, it’s Christmas.”

Numerous staff members expressed frustration over the schedule and said they had no idea whether they’d get home in time for Christmas.

“I just don’t know what we’re going to do,” said one staffer, his voice nearing exasperation. “I haven't made any plans yet, and we don't know what to do.”

The tough schedule is part of the job of being a staffer on Capitol Hill. It can mean late night votes, weekend work and a delayed vacation plans. In recent years, however, lawmakers have always been out of Washington in time for Christmas.

One senior GOP aide rescheduled a non-emergency surgery because he felt he needed to be in the office this week. “Back in October, we thought that everyone was going to be in Copenhagen this week,” he explained, “so [the chief of staff] and I looked at the calendar and I scheduled surgery for last Wednesday. I canceled it on Monday. Maybe I'll get it in August.”

Many offices expect to pare down to skeleton crews of only the senator's most senior aides, even as the Senate moves forward with votes that will be among the most important cast by sitting senators.

“Starting Monday, we're going bare bones,” said a GOP staffer. “We'll have the legislative director, one healthcare guy, one communications person, and a support staffer. Everyone else can go home.”

But he said some offices are known for being less accommodating. “I know that in some offices there's a sense that if the Senate is in session, you should be at your desk, end of story. So it's like, ‘who’s going to stick it out?’”

For those who do stick it out, travel options grow slim the longer they remain in Washington. One GOP communications director said she’ll be forced to drive more than 20 hours to get home if the Senate doesn’t let out before her scheduled Wednesday flight, a scenario that looks increasingly likely.

“This is just part of the job,” she said. “The younger staff goes home, and if you're senior enough that you need to stay, you're basically prepared for that [possibility].”

Prepared or not, there are few good choices when it comes to changing flights around Christmas.

A spokeswoman for Jet Blue, which operates out of Dulles International Airport, advised last minute travelers to buy refundable tickets to avoid paying hefty change fees ($100 for Jet Blue flights). The airline offers both non-refundable and refundable options for every flight, and while the refundable tickets cost slightly more upfront, they may be worth it.

She also said travelers should be aware that stand-by status only applies to flights leaving the same day as the original flight; one day later and it's considered a new reservation.

But as the Senate begins its third consecutive working weekend, many people's plans are simply on hold, set aside while they focus on the legislative task at hand.

"It's like a game of chicken," said a GOP aide, “and we're all just waiting to see who blinks.”