There will be nothing spectacular about Rep. Jason Altmire (D-PA) walking into the U.S. Capitol around 6:30 pm Wednesday night when the bells ring to signal votes.
More than 400 of Altmire's House colleagues will do the same thing. That's what Members of Congress do: they vote. They vote on the House and Senate floors. They vote in committee. They vote hundreds if not thousands of times each year.
So Wednesday night's votes will be nothing different than when Altmire last voted on the on June 24 at 2 pm. And it's really no different than a vote he cast at 12:32 pm on January 4, 2007.
With one indiscernible but major difference that sets Altmire apart from the rest of his House colleagues.
Altmire hasn't missed a single vote since he cast his first one as a freshman on January 4, 2007. That's a string of 4,024 consecutive votes for Altmire. And no other House Member is even close to matching that mark right now.
Iron City may be the brew of choice for Altmire's constituents in western Pennsylvania. But Altmire is the "Ironman" of Capitol Hill.
"I'm not mentally wrapped up in the streak," Altmire said. "Making those votes is what I do for a living."
In fact, Altmire wasn't even aware he hadn't missed a vote until the end of his first year on Capitol Hill.
During freshman orientation for newly-minted lawmakers, Congressional veterans counsel the rookies to miss a few votes early on so they don't build up a streak. But Altmire says Republicans have virtually eliminated meaningless votes where the House "names weeks after vegetables." Some lawmakers skip those symbolic votes. But now almost every vote in the House is on something of substance.
Altmire hasn't even had many close calls during his consecutive vote streak. In fact when votes are called, Altmire is often one of the first lawmakers to stroll through the Speaker's Lobby behind the House floor en route to one of the voting stations.
Cancelled flights and travel delays are one sure-fire method for Members of Congress to miss votes. Altmire usually flies to Washington. But the nation's capital is just a four-hour drive from the Congressman's district, which he says helps him make votes. If snowstorms threaten air travel, Altmire just drives to Washington.
When votes are called, most members amble to the House chamber, insert their voting cards into one of the voting machines sprinkled about the chamber and then chat with colleagues in the hall or talk to reporters in the Speaker's Lobby. But as the scoreboard clock ticks down to 00:00, the marble corridors encircling the House chamber resonate with a frantic cacophony of "One more! One more!"
Lawmakers dash up grand staircases, making two steps at a time and furiously waving their voting cards above their heads. Like a game of telephone, House floor security personnel then echo the lawmakers, also shouting "One more!" into the doorways leading to the House chamber. This is all in hopes that whomever is presiding over the chamber will spy the tardy lawmakers and not gavel the vote closed.
Casual observers could mistake lawmakers for 100 meter sprinting champion Usain Bolt as they rush to make a vote. But Altmire isn't among those competing in that heat.
"I've never been in a position where I was running in at the end," Altmire said.
Democrats often asked Altmire to preside over the chamber when they controlled the House. So Altmire witnessed his share of stragglers spilling onto the floor in hopes of making the vote.
"It puts into perspective how serious people are about voting," Altmire says.
Altmire says his streak was in jeopardy when he traveled to Haiti with then-Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) to help rescue constituents who were stuck there. They flew from Haiti to Orlando, FL and then to Pittsburgh. And Altmire was due for votes in Washington.
"That was the closest call," Altmire says.
But Altmire says the lack of proximity to Washington isn't the biggest contributor to missed votes. When the House faces a lengthy sequence of anywhere from ten to 20 votes, the chair shrinks the standard voting time from 15 to five minutes --- and then slices it to two. Lawmakers are stuck in the chamber and sometimes lose track of what's going on.
"One of the easiest ways to miss (a vote) is to be sitting right there during two minute votes," Altmire said. "Next thing you know, they're bringing the gavel down."
But for Altmire, he refuses to be burdened by the streak. He argues are some things that could outweigh the necessity to vote.
"It could be a meeting. Something going on back in the district. I'm going to serve my constituents," he said.
Altmire learned this philosophy from veteran Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI), who used to have a voting streak of his own.
Kildee never missed between October 17, 1985 and October 27, 2000, a span of 8,141 consecutive roll call votes. The Michigan Democrat was finally awol when he found himself in the Oval Office meeting with President Clinton. Kildee's pager went off, signaling the House was calling votes across town.
Kildee decided it was better to continue his conversation with the president.
Baseball aficionados often tout the record of 2,130 games played by New York Yankee great Lou Gehrig. Then along came Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles. Ripken bested Gehrig, playing in 2,632 straight games.
When it comes to voting streaks, there is one figure in Congress whose record is so prodigious, it's akin to combining the efforts of Gehrig and Ripken. The mark may never be matched.
Between taking office in 1954 and his death 40 years later, Rep. William Natcher (D-KY) made a staggering 18,401 consecutive roll call votes.
Voting was an obsession for Natcher. And over time, it not only controlled his life but imprisoned him as well.
In the late 1970s, Natcher had to forgo tagging along with President Jimmy Carter during a visit to his rural Kentucky district because votes were scheduled at the Capitol. At one point, Natcher flew back and forth between Washington and Kentucky daily to tend to his ill wife. Natcher was once so sick with double pneumonia that the Capitol's Attending Physician warned the Congressman he might die if he didn't stay home. But Natcher took a steam bath and maintained the streak.
Until March 1, 1994.
Natcher suffered congestive heart failure and was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital, just outside Washington.
Concerned Natcher might again risk his life by violating doctor's orders, House Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA) postponed legislative action that day, thus preserving the streak.
The House next scheduled votes on March 3, 1994. And Natcher returned to the Capitol then.
On a hospital gurney.
A team of medical attendants clad in crisp, white uniforms wheeled the 84-year-old Natcher into the House chamber. A wisp of his former self, a tangle of IV tubes exploded from Natcher's arms, routing glucose to his veins. An oxygen mask squatted across Natcher's face. A news account described Natcher's appearance as "pale and spectral." A white sheet covered Natcher, even though he wore a three-piece suit.
When the House called a meaningless procedural vote, the medical entourage slid the gurney into the House chamber and Natcher voted for the 18,398th consecutive time.
"Is it worth it?" bellowed a reporter as Natcher lay on the gurney in the Speaker's Lobby.
The medical attendants retired Natcher to a nearby office suite until the House completed voting that night.
That would be the last day Natcher traveled to the Capitol. On March 3, Natcher's office issued a statement that the Congressman wouldn't return. The streak ended at 18,401 consecutive votes. Natcher died a few weeks later at Bethesda.
At the time, Jason Altmire worked as an aide to then-Rep. Pete Peterson (D-FL).
"I remember very well when his streak was alive," Altmire said. "It was such a big deal. It became kind of absurd."
Altmire says he doesn't know how or when his voting streak might end. He says he's not going to "miss a vote on purpose." But Altmire knows something about streaks, just not from working at the Capitol at the time of Natcher's stretch, but also from attending a game between the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners at Camden Yards on June 6, 1993.
A fracas ensued after the teams exchanged beanballs. Ripken wound up on the bottom of a pile of Orioles and Mariners and badly twisted his knee.
"I was sitting in the outfield seats and I remember the guys running in from the bullpen," Altmire said. "Then (Ripken) got up limping."
It's widely believed that brawl is the closest Ripken came to ending his streak before matching Gehrig. Ripken's knee swelled overnight. He told his wife he might have to sit out the next day.
But Ripken didn't.
Altmire doesn't equate what he's doing to the runs made by Natcher or Ripken. But Altmire says Ripken's tweaked knee reveals just how fragile streaks are, whether they're on the diamond or the House floor.
"Just one slip, that's all it takes," Altmire said.
In Congress, lawmakers aren't guaranteed the right to do many things. They aren't assured a particular committee assignment. There's no promise the House will consider their bill. The only certainty is their right to vote. That's why lawmakers scramble to make it to the floor just before they close votes.
On January 19, 1974, Notre Dame guard Dwight Clay drained a jumpshot with 28 seconds left to edge UCLA 71-70. Clay's shot halted the Bruins' legendary 88-game winning streak. It remains one of the most-heralded runs in all of sports.But at the end of the streak, it was said UCLA was playing not to win, but instead, not to lose.
Altmire incorporates this wisdom into his streak. The Congressman predicts the stretch will end when there's someplace he needs to be that outweighs a particular vote. In other words, playing to win, instead of playing not to lose.
"The moral of the story is that some things are more important than voting," Altmire said. "If missing a vote is a better option, I'm going to do that."So on Wednesday night, Altmire is slated to cast his 4,025th consecutive vote.
And the question is who or what will embody Notre Dame Guard Dwight Clay and bring Altmire's consecutive vote streak to a close.