Reporter's Notebook: Happy Birthday, Sen. Stevens

Tuesday in the Senate was about gifts and birthday wishes.

But there was no cake. No candles. And the atmosphere was anything but festive.

By 11:30 a.m. ET, Tuesday, no one had bothered to offer Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens a happy 85th birthday.

I've tussled with the tempestuous Stevens as much as anyone on Capitol Hill over the years. Few rival his explosive temper. And with Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., planning to mount an effort to strip the convicted Stevens of his top position on the Senate Appropriations Committee and kick him out of the GOP Conference, I anticipated Stevens' manners could be more like Genghis Khan than Emily Post.

So when Stevens faced a gauntlet of reporters between his office and a closed door meeting of Senate Republicans in the Mike Mansfield Room of the Capitol, I figured I'd get further with the senator by just being polite.

"Happy birthday Senator," I said.

The media horde closed around him. Stevens was surprised and looked up at me.

"Why, thank you. Well you're the first person to wish me a happy birthday,"

With that, Stevens extended his hand and we shook.

"Do you have anything planned?" I continued.

"No. Not really. Just keeping going," he replied.

Sometimes the best gifts are the ones not given. And that was certainly the case Tuesday in the Senate.

Stevens' Senate colleagues may not have formally wished him well Tuesday. But DeMint granted the Alaska Republican one of the best birthday presents he could ask for when he decided not to press the Senate GOP Conference to expel Stevens.

DeMint wanted to sanction his colleague after a jury convicted Stevens last month ago of hiding gifts and not reporting favors from an Alaskan oil services firm. But DeMint deferred pending more election results Tuesday night which could determine whether Stevens would hold his seat in a challenge against Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.

Begich declared victory late Tuesday.

In many ways, DeMint's decision to defer his expulsion effort until after more votes were tallied was a birthday gift for the Senate, too. That way, waiting until the voters spoke made Stevens future a fait accompli.

No one wanted to wrestle behind closed doors and certainly not on the Senate floor with a fellow senator --  especially Stevens, a man who a few years ago was three heartbeats away from the presidency as president pro tempore of the Senate. And Begich's victory saved the Senate from descending into what could have proven to be one of its ugliest scenes in decades: trying to purge a stubborn 85-year-old from its ranks convicted on seven felony counts.

Had Stevens won re-election, a potential expulsion from the Senate may have been one of the most ignominious exits from Capitol Hill in decades.

Both former Republican Reps. Bob Ney and Duke Cunningham resigned. But Stevens intended to stay and fight.

"I haven't had a night's sleep now in almost four months," said Stevens as the crush of reporters penned him in. "It's hard to for me to even answer some of your questions properly."

I asked Stevens if he was "pleased" that DeMint postponed his efforts.

"I wouldn't use the word "pleased," he said. "But I'm happy."

But Stevens couldn't have been happy about the election results last night. Especially for a man who has served in the Senate since 1968, and especially for the end to come on his 85th birthday.
"I wouldn't wish what I've been through on anyone. (Not on) my worst enemy," said Stevens.

Stevens appeared glum. And in his brief session with reporters, the senator didn't scrap with his usual feistiness. But the best clue that Stevens may have been resigned to his fate came in his selection of neckwear.

Like a martial artist donning his black belt before a tournament, Stevens signal he was ready to do battle came when he knotted up one of his many Incredible Hulk ties on days when facing major battles on the Senate floor.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist once said, "When I see the Hulk tie on Ted Stevens, I know he's pumped up."

Stevens wore no Incredible Hulk tie Tuesday. Just a simple, golden silk tie with a blue print.
It was a different birthday for Stevens five years ago on his 80th birthday. Senate Republicans brought in a cardboard cutout of the Incredible Hulk for a birthday soiree they held for Stevens in the Mansfield Room.

But his 85th birthday was decidedly different.

As Stevens finally abandoned the phalanx of reporters to head back into that same Mansfield Room, another reporter wished him a happy birthday.

"I hope you have a better one on your day," Stevens said and left.

-- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. Hes won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.