John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton

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The only thing they fight about is Mr. Schumer’s messy bed

Taking Power, Sharing Cereal
At Home With George Miller, Richard J. Durbin, Charles E. Schumer and Bill Delahunt

SOME of the most powerful Democrats in America are split over a most incendiary household issue: rodents.

“I once had to pick up a mouse by the tail that Durbin refused to pick up,” complained Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, referring to his roommate Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.

This characterization is not fair to Mr. Durbin, interjected another tenant in the Capitol Hill row house, Representative Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts. For starters, it overlooks Mr. Durbin’s gift for killing rats. “He will kill them with his bare hands,” Mr. Delahunt marveled.

“Oh, will you stop with the rats,” said the annoyed fourth roommate, Representative George Miller of California. He owns the house and is sensitive to any suggestion that he harbors pestilence. It’s dicey enough that he harbors politicians.

Think MTV’s “Real World” with a slovenly cast of Democratic power brokers. While Washington may have more than its share of crash pads for policy-debating workaholics, few, if any, have sheltered a quorum as powerful as this one. About a quarter-mile southeast of the Capitol, the inelegantly decorated two-bedroom house has become an unlikely center of influence in Washington’s changing power grid. It is home to the second- and third-ranking senators in the new Democratic majority (Mr. Durbin, the majority whip, and Mr. Schumer, the vice chairman of the Democratic caucus) and the chairman of the House Democratic Policy Committee (Mr. Miller).

Mr. Delahunt, a six-term congressman, is the least prominent of the four but perhaps the funniest. More to the point, he is the only one willing to sleep in the living room with a close-up view of Mr. Schumer slumbering a few feet away in his boxers.

Mr. Miller began taking in weary lawmakers in 1982, but this is the first time in 12 years that four members of a Democratic majority have lived here simultaneously. The four men were once host to a fund-raiser for Senator Barbara Boxer of California at their divey dwelling, raising $80,000. Given the prevailing attire in the place on many nights, guests were given pairs of custom-made “Barbara Boxer shorts.”

As a general rule, the abode is hardly fit for entertaining, or even for a health inspector. It is used for convenience: sleeping, ditching stuff, and fast-food consumption — the kinds of functions prized by vagabond politicians whose families are back in their home states and who generally spend only their working weekdays here.

“Everybody in the world says they’re going to do a television series based on us,” said Mr. Durbin, who was collapsed on the couch on a recent Monday night. Still in a tie, he sipped ice water from a massive Chicago Cubs cup while waiting for the Chinese food to arrive.

“But then they realize that the story of four middle-aged men, with no sex and violence, is not going to last two weeks,” he said. The prevailing topics of their discussions are grandchildren and Metamucil, he added.

“Hey, speak for yourself, Durbin,” Mr. Delahunt said, protesting the claim of no sex and violence.

“There is a lot of violence in here,” Mr. Schumer said.

In fact, the roommates have never resorted to violence, at least with one another. (Crickets are another story.) Their weapons are verbal, and often aimed at Mr. Schumer, who admits to a serious dereliction of roommate duties, like grocery shopping. He is also prone to a blatant disregard for conserving a most precious household resource, cereal.

“I love cereal,” Mr. Schumer said, digging into his second bowl of granola, going a long way toward depleting a box that Mr. Miller had just purchased.

The night of the national championship football game between the University of Florida and Ohio State, Jan. 8, was a rare instance of the four roommates being home and awake at the same time. It had not happened since the election in November, and the neighborhood has changed considerably since then. Several Republicans on the block lost their race or left Congress (the latter category includes the disgraced Representative Mark Foley, who lived down the street).

“This street was just devastated by the election,” Mr. Miller said. “Who says Republicans are good for property values?”

He added that no Republican had ever set foot in the place, at least to their knowledge.

“We just have to vote with them, not live with them,” he said.

Mr. Miller bought the house in 1977 and started taking in renters a few years later. Early tenants included former Representative Marty Russo of Illinois and former Representative Leon E. Panetta of California, who was forced to move out when President Clinton appointed him head of the Office of Management and Budget. (Ethics laws prohibited a White House official from paying rent to a member of Congress.)

Mr. Schumer joined them in 1982, and Mr. Durbin moved in a decade later on condition that he get one of the two bedrooms upstairs. Mr. Miller sleeps in the other, bigger bedroom, asserting his ownership privileges, and Mr. Delahunt began occupying the second living room bed four years ago, after a previous tenant, former Representative Sam Gejdenson, was evicted by voters in Connecticut.

Mr. Miller charges rent of $750 a month, which Mr. Durbin pays by direct deposit and Mr. Schumer’s wife pays by sending Mr. Miller six checks twice a year. Mr. Schumer says his wardrobe at the apartment consists of boxers and suits, nothing in between.

Women rarely set foot in the place, excluding the Haitian cleaning lady who comes every week and who everyone promises is a legal immigrant. The common bathroom upstairs is stocked with supersize bottles of Listerine, CVS cocoa butter, Suave shampoo (with dandruff control) and a hair dryer.

Little thought is given to entertainment besides the big-screen television that Mr. Durbin recently purchased against the wishes of Mr. Schumer and Mr. Delahunt, who liked the old one. The refrigerator is mostly empty save for apples, grapes and about two dozen bottles of beer.

“The icemaker is back on,” boasted Mr. Miller, pointing to the inside of what might be the most unseemly freezer in Washington this side of Representative William Jefferson’s. (F.B.I. agents found $90,000 in the freezer of Mr. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, who is being investigated on bribery charges.)

Once, Mr. Miller’s son shot a deer and presented the house with an abundant supply of venison. It remained in the freezer for 12 years, at which point it was deemed to have reached its term limit and was discarded.

“Whatever happened to that venison?” Mr. Schumer wondered.

“I think it just got up and walked away,” Mr. Delahunt said.

The roommates then repaired to couches to watch Florida-Ohio State and to stuff their faces with Sichuan beef and kung pao chicken. Mr. Durbin began talking about meetings he had last month with the presidents of Bolivia and Ecuador on a Congressional delegation to Latin America. Then he and Mr. Schumer started arguing about Mr. Schumer’s refusal to make his bed.

Copyright © 2007 The New York Times Company

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