Reporter's Notebook: The Long Goodbye

No one wanted to be on Capitol Hill Thursday night.

Just a couple weeks away from Christmas. The third iteration of a lame duck session since November's election. Yet the Senate buzzed as lawmakers struggled to find their way out of a legislative cul-de-sac.

The future of the auto industry and perhaps the American economy hinged on it.

The clock crept toward 9:30 p.m. Reporters massed by the second floor bank of elevators near the Senate chamber. Many groused about missing a Christmas party nearby at the Heritage Foundation.

Republican senators huddled in the Lyndon B. Johnson Room to hear Sen. Bob Corker, R-TN, describe a hail-Mary plan to extend loans to the flailing auto industry.

Corker's idea was the Senate's last, best option.

The House approved its version of the loan package the night before. But the bill vexed the Senate -- particularly conservatives who filibustered the plan. And Senate leaders knew they would either crack a deal late Thursday or call it quits for the year.

Lots of senators were already gone. Planes were gassing up for congressional delegation trips overseas leaving in the morning. Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, was already en route to a conference in Poland.

It was all hands on deck for this Senate endgame. Aides recalled senators from their offices or even from home. A vote was possible. Both sides needed bodies.

Word went out earlier in the day that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-NY, President-elect Obama's choice for Secretary of State, would come back to the Senate to vote. A few reporters spotted Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, scurrying down a Senate stairwell.

The weather outside was as sour as the mood inside. A driving rain pelted the Capitol. Not a night to venture out. But nothing indicated the gravity of the matter until two Republican senators arrived for the conclave in the LBJ Room.

The first doddered around into the corridor, still cloaked in a sodden overcoat. The senator carried a hat in his hand, raindrops dripping from the brim. His hair was tousled as though he'd been rousted from a nap or rushed out the door so quickly he didn't comb his hair.

I can't imagine what went through the mind of Sen. Ted Stevens, R-AK, at that moment. Convicted. Beaten. And now summoned at home one final time for a late night vote. The last of his career.

What a way to end a 40-year Senate career.

I'm sure no one wanted to be at the Capitol any less Thursday night than Stevens.

Besides someone else, of course.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-ID, materialized a few minutes later and also ducked into the LBJ Room.

Earlier in the week, a Minnesota appeals court rejected the Idaho Republican's effort to toss out his disorderly conduct conviction. Police arrested Craig last year in an airport bathroom and accused him of cruising for gay sex. Craig's office even issued a press release declaring the senator was "extremely disappointed" and maintained his innocence.

There were similar, dour valedictories during the House's final session Wednesday night. No one really wanted to be over there either. Especially those whose careers imploded over real or alleged ethical lapses.

Indicted Rep. Bill Jefferson, D-LA, just lost his bid for re-election a week ago in a stunning upset by Rep.-elect Joseph Cao, R-LA. A federal appeals court Friday declined Jefferson's request to throw out charges accusing him of influence peddling.

No one saw Jefferson come or go from the House chamber. But the Louisiana congressman cast a vote in favor of rescuing the auto industry.

However, Jefferson's "Aye" vote was cancelled out by the "No" vote of Rep. Vito Fossella's, R-NY.

On Monday, a Virginia court sentenced Fossella to five days in the clink for a DUI. His May arrest unearthed the revelation that the married congressman is the father of a 3-year-old daughter with a paramour who used to work in the House.

The House requires lawmakers to wear a coat and tie before stepping onto the floor. But for his final vote, Fossella appeared only in a sweater and jeans.

For his part, Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-FL, did meet the House dress code. Mahoney stylized his ensemble with a Bluetooth headset and chatted at the back of the Speaker's Lobby.

Many believe Mahoney only won his seat in 2006 because of the transgressions of former Rep. Mark Foley, R-FL. Mahoney faced a tough race this year. But Rep.-elect Tom Rooney, R-FL, ultimately put him away after Mahoney admitted he paid a former staffer and mistress hush money and had an affair with another woman.

But Mahoney's congressional exit didn't seem to be as morose as the others.

Mahoney cast his last vote on the floor and then walked to an elevator with Reps. Albio Sires, D-NY, Michael Arcuri, D-NY and Brad Ellsworth, D-IN. Someone cracked a joke and they all enjoyed a belly laugh. Sires slapped Mahoney on the shoulder.

They said their final for farewells for the year. They shook hands. A few hugged. They wished each other happy holidays. It was like the end of school. You could almost year Bon Jovi's "Never Say Goodbye" playing in the background.

But there are whispers in the Senate they could reel everyone back to town just before Christmas for a final stab at prying free money for the auto industry.

After Thursday night's failed Senate vote, retiring Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM, walked by. I wished him well, shook his hand and told the senator we'd miss him.

He said thank you, walked a few steps away and then turned around.

"Do you think we're really done for the year?" he asked skeptically, almost begging to be put out of his misery.

You never know with Congress. And if not, the same cast will return to Capitol Hill to extend what has already been a painful, long goodbye.

FOX News' Chad Pergram has won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.