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A Day In The Life On Capitol Hill

(AP)
It's turning out to be a newsworthy day on Capitol Hill. But yesterday, when I spent the day with Capitol Hill associate producer Allison Davis and correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, there was quite a bit of news coming out of the Capitol building as well. Among other topics, the FBI's search of Congressman Jefferson's office was still causing quite a bit of reaction from lawmakers; the Senate was set to vote on an immigration bill; and in the wake of a data breach at the VA, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee was holding a hearing on the matter. For those at CBS News covering the hill, it's "a moving target all day long," as Attkisson put it. When I joined Attkisson and Davis that morning, they were aiming for a story on the immigration bill for the "Evening News" that night – so their focus that day was on the Senate.

There are a host of hearings, press conferences, pen and pad sessions with members, etc., going on any given day – they have to figure out what to pay attention to and where to direct their resources.

Today, they were keeping an eye on the Senate floor, as well as any press conferences about the immigration bill that might come up. Each week, Attkisson sends a note to "Evening News" executive producer Rome Hartman, letting him know what on the upcoming agenda might be of interest. He gives an indication of what the show is most interested in and she focuses on that.

"We have to know what's going on," said Attkisson, "but we don't want to waste resources" (i.e. camera crews and producers) on events that aren't going to be useful in a practical sense. An event like Veterans Affairs Committee hearing is definitely something that the "Evening News" is interested in – so correspondent Bob Orr, who's been covering that story, is set to do a piece on it for that night's broadcast.

So far, the "Evening News" isn't definitely interested in a story on the immigration bill, since Attkisson previewed the news on Wednesday night's show, but that could very well change, so she plans to write a script and have it ready just in case she gets a call.

Like a lot of news coverage, much of what is covered on the hill is "protective" – resources are in place at certain events in case news happens. "There are so many crews and resources covering things protectively -- things that never see air," said Attkisson.

But while there's a lot of time spent gathering information that might not necessarily make air, both Davis and Attkisson agree that it isn't wasted time. "It's still important that we talk to [members and staffers] off camera or on background," said Davis. "I don't consider it a waste of time just because it's not on camera or it doesn't make air." When Davis does encounter something valuable off camera, she typically sends a bureau-wide email to the Washington staff about it to keep people informed. "I think more information is always better," Davis said. "If they delete my e-mail, they delete my e-mail."

Since they're working in television, however, having cameras around just in case news happens somewhere is, of course, highly important. For instance, Davis explained, before Michael Hayden faced confirmation hearings to become director of the CIA, he did a round of meetings with senators on the hill. When they heard that he had a meeting with Sen. John McCain, said Davis, she and a crew headed over and hung out outside his office. While they were there, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales showed up. "That was a surprise," said Davis, and they got a few shots of him entering and leaving the office. They threw some questions at him, but he didn't bite. "None of the footage we got made air," said Davis, adding that there was no reason it should have been on air. "But one of the things about [reporting] on the hill is that you never know."

Other times, however, such coverage really does pay off. Davis relayed a story about another recent meeting that Hayden had with a senator. She and a crew were waiting outside of the office and when Hayden came out, someone asked about his response to USA Today's NSA story. "We got really good sound," said Davis. It was Hayden's first comment on the story and "totally unexpected," she said.

Many of the other events they cover on the hill are not so spontaneous. Yesterday, for instance, a group of Republican senators who opposed the immigration bill held a press conference in the Radio/Television Gallery. The room was pretty much full, there were cameras all along a platform in the back row and the senators were up on a little podium. Basically, they all came up to the microphone and said the same thing about eight different ways – we're a nation of immigrants but this bill stinks. The most interesting parts didn't come until the end, when most of the senators had already spoken and left the podium. A Fox News reporter asked Sens. David Vitter and Jeff Sessions about their responses to the search of Rep. Jefferson's office. Vitter and Sessions ended up staking their ground on the issue by saying the search was legal and constitutional and congressional leaders' opposition on the matter suggests to the public that they are trying to protect their own interests.

Back at the Senate booth, Davis called producer Steve Chaggaris at the Washington bureau, who was working with correspondent Gloria Borger, and might be interested in the information.

That's essentially the most useful part of such press conferences. "Obviously we prefer one on one [interviews with senators]," said Attkisson. During press conferences like this one, "they repeat themselves for 40 minutes, and all you need is an eight second sound bite." But, there's always the opportunity to ask questions at the end of members who might not make themselves available for individual interviews.

By late afternoon, Attkisson has sent a draft script to "Evening News" senior producer Jim McGlinchy at the Washington bureau. So far, a story on immigration isn't in the line up, but she has a piece fleshed out that does a side-by-side comparison of both the Senate and House versions of the immigration bill.

Later, news comes across the wires that President Bush is putting the documents seized from Rep. Jefferson's office under seal for 45 days, which may increase the likelihood that a story on the matter will make the "Evening News." That means a press availability in the print gallery (which means no T.V. cameras) that had been scheduled earlier by Sen. Vitter will likely be worth Davis' time, if she's not busy with anything else.

At 4 p.m, we head down to the print gallery. Vitter's session is much more informal and has a smaller group of about 10-12 reporters. He sits in an easy chair in front of a fireplace, a few still photographers are taking pictures, and reporters are taking notes. He talks for about 10 minutes regarding a meeting he and Sen. Sessions requested with "high ranking Justice Department officials" about the search of Jefferson's office. Vitter further fleshes out his views on the search that he discussed in the earlier press conference.

It ends up being an interesting session, said Davis, because Sessions and Vitter are the first senators she's heard of that are openly defecting from what's so far been an outpouring of bipartisan opposition to the search.

Davis later sends out an e-mail detailing the session with Vitter while keeping an eye on the immigration vote. By the time the "Evening News" rolls around, it ends up as a voice over on the result by anchor Bob Schieffer: "The senate passed its version of an immigration bill today 62-36. It includes money to tighten security at the borders, a new guest worker program, and puts millions of illegal immigrants on the road to citizenship. Senate and house negotiators will try to work out the differences between their two versions, and it's not at all clear that they will succeed."