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Fidget Spinners, Pacing, Note-Taking: Staying Awake In The Senate Chamber

In this artist sketch, Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., flanked by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., left, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., right, listens during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. Several Senators report that the trial's strict rules and long hours make are testing their mental fortitude.
In this artist sketch, Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., flanked by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., left, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., right, listens during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. Several Senators report that the trial's strict rules and long hours make are testing their mental fortitude.
Credit Dana Verkouteren / AP
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Around dinnertime on Tuesday, just about four hours into the impeachment trial of President Trump, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, did not look enthralled by House Democrats’ presentations. In fact, he looked the opposite. Eyes closed, he was slumped over and appeared to be snoozing.

Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., reportedly also dozed off briefly before jolting back awake.

The sleepy interludes demonstrate a struggle many senators are fighting against during the trial’s marathon sessions: resisting the urge to nod off, as the tiring days test stamina and patience.

“It’s constitutionally difficult for senators to be quiet and sit that long. It’s not how we’re built,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters on Thursday.

Under the trial’s strict rules, the elected body must be engaged from the session’s start to finish with arguments about Trump’s now-familiar pressure campaign on Ukraine.

Every day, the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms kicks off the day with a decorous reminder of the hush-hush guidelines, noting how violators could face a stiff penalty.

“Here ye! Here ye! Here ye! All persons are commanded to keep silent, on pain of imprisonment,” the sergeant-at-arms declares.

Indeed, they are not supposed to talk to each other. Senators are not allowed to pass notes. Snacks are banned (but water and milk is OK). Cell phones and other devices are to be stored in a cubby outside of the chamber. Senators must attend the long trial sessions six days a week. And the whole time, coffee is not permitted into the chamber, a point creating stress from some senators.

“I drink coffee from the minute I wake up until bedtime,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., told the Wall Street Journal. “So my biggest challenge is to drink enough coffee to stay awake, but not drink so much that I, you know, that I’m, ah, uncomfortable in the chamber.”

Under-caffeinated senators are devising creative ways to pass the time.

On Thursday, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., provided weary senators with colorful fidget spinners, a hand toy for restless children.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., was spotted reading a book.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wrote large notes on his notebook and then tilted them up toward his Senate colleague, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., let out a big yawn.

Other senators needing to stretch their legs or craving a break, whether mental or otherwise, strolled the cloakroom for brief respite.

After pacing back and forth in the back of the chamber, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., told the Washington Post that movement helps him stay mentally stimulated, and that he hoped the House managers do not take offense to his frenetic habit.

“It actually helps me think and stay focused, frankly, on what’s going on,” Booker said.

Senators voted on Tuesday to shorten the days from 12-hours to 8-hours, but the sessions were still managing to test fortitude and patience, especially since, for most senators, the arguments are not likely to change their position.

A nearly party-line vote on the two articles of impeachment is expected, meaning the replay of arguments and testimony from the House impeachment inquiry are not likely to budge any opinions.

“The subject matter is something we’ve all heard,” Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said to reporters.

After a nearly nine-hour day on Wednesday, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., one of the lead prosecutors of the impeachment case, acknowledged that being a juror during the long days is no easy feat. Presenting hours upon hours of arguments, he said, is also tiring.

“It was an exhausting day for us, certainly. But we have adrenaline going through our veins. And for those that are required to sit and listen, it is a much more difficult task,” Schiff said.

Made even more uncomfortable, Sen. Cornyn said Thursday, when the chamber’s chairs are less than ergonomic.

“They’re not particularly built for comfort, I will tell you that,” Cornyn said. “I keep sort of sliding out of it.”

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