It was almost surreal visiting Washington, D.C. last week as part of a Minnesota chamber delegation.
Our contingent included Lisa Paxton, CEO, and Bob Brekken, board chair, of the Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce, and Sheila Haverkamp, executive director of the Brainerd Lakes Area Development Corp. The goal was to take the message of area businesses directly to our congressional delegation on their own turf, to build the kind of relationships that can get answers and assistance when needs arise.
Shortly after our connecting flight left Cleveland we were informed that passengers were not allowed to leave their seats during the final 30-minute approach into Washington. Doing so would cause our flight to be diverted to another airport. Certainly this would be different than previous trips to our nation's capital.
We were traveling to discuss everyday issues with our elected officials, but clearly this was a nation at war. The cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin, and the tourists along the Mall and in the museums were in sharp contrast to the security forces we saw everywhere. Entering every House or Senate office building meant walking through metal detectors and searches of personal belongings. Uniformed security officers -- some with automatic weapons at the ready -- were at street corners and the entrance to government buildings.
But, despite the security and a sense of watchfulness, America's business went on.
We were well received by our congressman and senators. Mark Kennedy of the 6th District joined us for dinner one night. We met with Jim Oberstar of our own 8th District, and with John Kline of the 2nd, and staff members for Collin Peterson of the 7th. We had productive meetings with Senators Norm Coleman and Mark Dayton.
At each stop Paxton and Brekken spoke of the health care insurance problems faced by the small employers who abound in the lakes area. Haverkamp carried the message of economic development. And we joined our colleagues from around the state to lobby for transportation needs and discuss the pending tax bill.
But the surreal, divided nature of our trip could not have been made more apparent than by a visit to the Senate gallery. After passing through several security checks we took our seats, just in time to hear Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma speak to the terrible consequences of war. He gave a moving eulogy for a Marine lance corporal from Broken Bow who had made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. Nickles' words, now part of the Congressional Record, gave a touching sense of reality to what had been just a name and photo in the morning paper.
Minutes later Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah squared off in spirited debate with Vermont's Sen. Patrick Leahy over the contested nomination of Miguel Estrada to the federal appeals court. Though punctuated with references to "my distinguished colleague" and "my good friend" the debate was sharp and spirited. Other senators weighed in with distinctly partisan comment, notably Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.
And then to the vote. Over the course of 20 minutes the senators entered the chamber, walking to the front to cast their vote in person. The count of 55 in favor and 44 against meant the Democratic filibuster would continue, 60 votes being needed to break the logjam. According to Hatch this is the longest running filibuster in history for a judicial nominee.
The day before, standing on the Capitol steps with a military officer, we had watched students having their photos taken. Families with children played on the lawn stretching toward the Washington Monument. Around us cars of workers streamed home, and on the other side of the Capitol building workers cleaned up after a demonstration on the steps of the Supreme Court. And half a world away young American men and women fought and died to free the Iraqi people.
Yet even in time of war carrying on with our nation's business didn't seem wrong. If anything it seemed most appropriate.
A platoon of Marines counted cadence as they jogged past on a three-mile run. A thumbs-up from us drew smiles and a loud hoo-ah from them. They crossed the street and continued down the Mall, jogging through the crowds of tourists.
And again, it seemed appropriate. Even in time of war, even as we increase security and become more watchful, we continue to go about our business. America is a nation that works.
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