'Twas the Night Before Christmas and the Senate Was in Session

Cross-posted with the Morning Delivery.

Neither sleet, nor snow, nor punishing winds, nor blinding white blizzard conditions could stop members of the Senate from slogging to the Capitol on an early Saturday morning to take care of crucial business.

In some skillful 11th hour rewording, which restricts insurance coverage for abortions even further, the Senate's health care bill has won the support of Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the one remaining holdout that gave Democrats' the 60 votes needed to end debate and bring the bill to a full vote on Christmas Eve. A procedural vote will take place on Monday before Thursday's vote.

Yes, you heard right; Congress will be spending Christmas Eve in the nation's Capitol, not in their home states sipping egg nog and listening to Bing Crosby while putting the final decorations on their Christmas trees.

So has the Senate ever been in session on Christmas Eve before? Yes.

Is it rare? Yes.

Actually, it didn't use to be so rare. According to U.S. Senate Historical Office, prior to 1850, the Senate would regularly meet on December 24th and reconvene on December 26th, the day after Christmas.

Records show the Senate met on December 24th seven times before the 20th century: 1855, 1860, 1861, 1883, 1884, 1890, and 1895. The reason for the sessions was nothing more than tending to miscellaneous matters and other executive business measures.

In 1963, the last time the Senate met on Christmas Eve, it was for the purpose of authorizing $3.6 billion of military and economic aid at the request of President Lyndon Johnson. Soon after meeting, however, the Senate decided to postpone the vote.

Over in the House, many members had already made their way home, only to be summoned back to Washington at the urging of the Democratic leadership.

One disgruntled member wasn't shy about voicing his anger over having to meet on the day before Christmas. Otto E. Passings, Democrat of Louisiana, a harsh critic of foreign aid, told the New York Times, "Maybe I should come in here on Christmas Eve in my Santa Claus suit and offer a bill distributing all this money to all those countries.''

In addition to voting on a foreign aid bill and authorizing wheat to the Soviet Union, the House of Representatives on Christmas Eve (1963) swore in newly elected Congressman J.J. (Jake) Pickle of Texas.

A major reason that Congress met so frequently on Christmas Eve in the 19th Century had little to do with the urgency of the legislation before their respective bodies, but was due instead to the time involved in their long journeys back home.

A Washington Post article from 1913 reports that before the frequency of passenger trains, members of Congress traveled to Washington by stagecoach, requiring months of bumpy travel. Since going back and forth to the Capitol required so much effort, Congress would frequently wait until the day after Christmas before recessing and traveling home. This often became the practice for New Year as well. Only when passenger trains become popular did it become customary for Congress to recess in enough time to travel back home for Christmas.

When stuck in Washington in 1963, the White House reportedly held a spur-of-the-moment Christmas party for members of Congress to help lift their spirits. No word, yet, if the Obama administration will hold any such party for members of the Senate at the end of the week.

But given the historic magnitude of this legislation, Christmas parties or even missing Christmas back home will be far from the minds of members of the Senate.

Even if the Senate bill passes on Christmas Eve, work still needs to be done; including reconciling it with the House bill, which passed last month 220-215, and includes a public option.

But having come this far in realizing the hope of insuring 31 million Americans over a 10-year period, expanding Medicare, prohibiting insurers from denying children coverage due to pre-existing conditions, and creating two (at least two) national health insurance plans modeled after the plan offered to federal workers, this bill in all likelihood will become a reality, giving Obama the conquest he practically bet his whole presidency on: to be the first president to successfully shepherd through a national health care plan, a dream never realized by his liberal predecessors: FDR, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson.