Seeing Congress, up close 

Between the Lines

Walking down the expansive hallways, with every step on the polished marble floors creating an echo, one can't help but feel inspired.

After all, this is Washington, D.C., and more specifically, this is the 101-year-old Cannon House Office Building, a huge and stately structure just southeast of the nation's Capitol.

My mission to start this day (last Friday, July 10) is to visit the office of U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, the second-term Republican from Colorado Springs. Obviously, we don't share many common views, and it's crazy to think one conversation would change that for either of us. In fact, there's no guarantee that he'll be available. This might be simply meeting staffers and then moving on to other appointments.

Then, voila, not only is Lamborn in the office, but he's happy to talk, at length. Being political opposites doesn't mean we're prohibited from cordial discussion — and even finding some common ground. In other words, some issues aren't on this agenda: There will be no post-mortems of the Bush-Cheney era. No talk about torture, spying or who might have deceived Congress. No dissecting immigration, stimulus plans or abortion rights.

On this day, our best bet is the military. So we share our thoughts about the mental health of soldiers returning from Middle East deployments. About the Army's progress in dealing with psychological issues and the necessity to continue that momentum. Also, about a story from last week's Independent (nice to hand-deliver it to Capitol Hill) about soldiers being assigned to Fort Carson but now forced to rent instead of buy — because they can't sell the homes they already own, and because a federal program intended to help them has some flaws. Perhaps something can be done.

As we hit that point, Lamborn digresses, saying the inefficiency of the federal government in handling that program helps explain why the feds (Democrats) shouldn't be trying to run health care. It could be a train wreck for our visit, but this isn't the time to argue. It's too unusual to meet any member of Congress in this setting, relaxed and upbeat, inside his or her own office.

So we steer back to the military, following up on a June 4 column here suggesting (with a positive statement from Lamborn) that Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, the outgoing Fort Carson post commander, should become the Pentagon's "czar" overseeing all branches' efforts on the mental health front. This time Lamborn doesn't simply agree. He asks a staffer to contact a specific military source to pursue the possibility.

We do touch on the Army's Piñon Canyon expansion, which Lamborn still supports despite much opposition and funding delays. Candidly, Lamborn admits, "The Army needs to show it's truly a win-win situation, and they haven't really done that yet." He adds that Piñon Canyon should suffice in its present size for the latest projections of 25,000 soldiers at Fort Carson.

Our time is running short, because the large picture-in-picture monitor in his office — one side showing a live feed from the House floor, the other not surprisingly tuned to FOX News Channel — is counting down the minutes in a procedural vote on an appropriations bill. As the seconds wind down, he asks if I play golf (yes), then reaches into a cabinet and pulls out a plaque. Embedded in it is a golf ball, commemorating Lamborn's only hole-in-one, achieved at Broadmoor West's No. 9 hole on Sept. 24, 1993.

It's not something he shows often. His communications director, Catherine Mortensen, says she's never seen it in her year-plus working there.

Now Lamborn really has to leave.

The record shows he makes it to the floor in time to cast that vote.

Meanwhile, I trot past the Library of Congress and Supreme Court to the Hart Senate Office Building, where Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet are headquartered. It's interesting to note that the TV in Udall's waiting room is actually showing the BBC World News, while Bennet's visitors see CNN. During meetings with their staffers, some topics (like health care) unfold much differently, but others like the military are quite similar.

Outside, workers are setting up crowd-control mechanisms to handle the huge lines of spectators for the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings. It's one of what seems like a million ongoing stories in Washington. But you can find new angles and fascinating interviews inside almost every office.

Including Doug Lamborn's.



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