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In bowels of the Capitol, secret rooms for everyone

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Senate Hideaways 011510
An office room is under renovation on the Senate Terrace level of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 4. For the first time, all 100 members of the Senate will have their own cloistered hideaways in the U.S. Capitol, traditionally a coveted mark of seniority and clout that lowly freshmen could only dream about. This year, even junior senators will get their own private, unmarked offices that are a convenient few steps from the Senate chamber. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Shhhhhhh. The perks of Senate membership just got sweeter.

For the first time, all 100 members of the chamber will have their own cloistered hideaways in the U.S. Capitol, traditionally a coveted mark of seniority and clout that lowly freshmen could only dream about.

This year, even junior senators will get their own private, unmarked offices that are a convenient few steps from the Senate chamber.

The addition of a dozen or so newly renovated rooms in the bowels of the Capitol represents a cultural shift in the custom-bound institution, made possible by moving a Capitol Police facility from the building's basement into the new, $621 million Capitol Visitor Center. The vacated space inside the Capitol's West Front made room for even shunned members of the Senate - Illinois Democrat Roland Burris, for example - and freshmen minority Republicans to move in.

While both parties make claims and counterclaims about openness in government, some things never change. The first rule of Senate hideaways: Only senators talk about them. And then, selectively and only about their own.

The only ways to know who occupies which office are to be invited in, witness a senator entering or exiting, or see a home-state newspaper lying outside the door in the morning. The hush-hush tradition creates sanctuaries for legislative work and meetings, as well as less official business - maybe even a nap.

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Hideaways occupy ancient nooks on all four floors of the historic building and are institutions within an institution and one of the last vestiges of nonpartisanship in an increasingly divided chamber. The most senior senators get first dibs on the best quarters, regardless of party.

They bear room numbers but no names. Some are hidden in plain sight, along corridors used by thousands of unknowing tourists. The portals to others hide beyond massive statues. Still others are crammed in the spaces around rotundas, or at the ends of hallways with multiple sets of stairs. Many can't be found without a guide.

Those occupied by such senior senators as Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., tend to be grand affairs, with bathrooms, fireplaces, chandeliers and million-dollar views of the Washington and Lincoln Memorials or the Supreme Court.

The newly renovated basement hideaways feature no such frills. These offices and some of their blueprints, examined by The Associated Press over the past year, reveal rooms that tend to be around 300 square feet, with low ceilings, no windows or bathrooms, and furnished with stock Senate tables and chairs. One such space, to be occupied by second-term Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., is cramped with a desk, sofa and small conference table.

The last two basement hideaways to be renovated have just received a soft yellow coat of paint. A few doors down, a couch sits still covered in plastic, awaiting its new occupant.

No one will talk about how much the taxpayers are spending to create the new offices. The famously discreet Senate Rules Committee, which distributes hideaways and handles all related matters, refused comment. A spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol's office, which performs the renovations, referred a reporter to the Rules Committee.

Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the most camera-friendly members of the Senate, declined an interview request on the subject. Ranking Republican Bob Bennett of Utah did not respond to a similar request. Two requests for comment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who by tradition would be aware of the changes, went unanswered by his usually responsive press office.

And so on.

"There's nothing inherently wrong with having hideaways. It's a long-standing tradition," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a private watchdog group.

It might even be more fair for every senator to have one, rather than just the longest-serving members, she added. But refusing to talk about how much is being spent on them, when it probably would have been spent anyway to repurpose the space, is "secrecy for its own sake," she said. "They make it seem worse than it probably is."

Discretion about hideaways is a courtesy senators expect of each other, one that some believe is more important than the public's right to know.

Rightly or wrongly, hideaways carry the image of unseemly privilege paid for by taxpayers. They have famously been used for business beyond the legislative sort, spaces "highly coveted by the powerful, and particularly by the playful," Bobby Baker, an aide to Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, wrote in his book, "Wheeling and Dealing: Confessions of a Capitol Hill Operator."

With three Senate office buildings to house staffs for constituent services - and subways to shuttle senators virtually across the street for votes - no senator can claim to really need a Capitol hideaway.

Schumer may have his own reasons for keeping mum. If he wants to be Senate majority leader someday, a discreet performance as Rules Committee's chairman would be required. Handing out office space and quietly making colleagues comfortable is a well-worn stop on the ladder to higher Senate posts.

The desire for private office space inside the Capitol dates back to the building's origins, when senators' offices were their desks on the chamber floor, according to Senate Historian Don Ritchie. Over the years, separate office buildings across the street went up to provide space for senators and their staffs to work.

As space in the Capitol became available, it was quietly awarded to senators by seniority. By early last year, the Rules Committee had found hideaways for as many as 90 senators, and none turned it down, said four officials familiar with the developments who demanded anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The remaining senators will get the keys to their own hideaways early this year, if they haven't received them already, these officials said.

They won't be stuck in the basement forever. Hideaways vacated by death or defeat of sitting senators become available at the beginning of each two-year Congress. Up for grabs will be the ultimate Senate hideaway: the third-floor corner suite occupied for decades by Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who died in August.


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