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Tomorrow the Most Important Word on Capitol Hill Will Be "Essential"

The word on everyone’s lips on Capitol Hill is “essential.” If Congress fails to fund the government, aides and Hill staffers of all varieties will be designated “essential”—meaning they will keep reporting to work—or “non-essential,” which translates into furloughed without pay. I overheard a blue-badged staffer ask a security guard how he was faring. “At least we’re essential,” he replied jovially. The Capitol Police will be exempt from furloughs; their jobs fit the House Administration Committee’s guidelines that essential positions be “directly related to constitutional responsibilities, the protection of human life, or the protection of property.” An employee directing tourist traffic, on the other hand, crowed recklessly, “It’s awesome! Come tomorrow, you don’t get paid!” Tours of the Capitol would be frozen as long as the shutdown persists. (Staff are generally forbidden to speak with the press, and the only security guard who would talk to me said, “It’s business as usual,” before shooing me away.)

The shutdown could make Capitol Hill an uncomfortable place for members of Congress, many of whom don't need the paycheck nearly as much as their non-essential receptionists or research assistants. When a reporter asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid what he would tell his staff at a press conference, he said, “Here’s what I would say to them: Understand that we’re dealing with anarchists. They hate government. And who is the worst part of government to them? It’s people who work for the federal government, whether they’re waiting tables or in the FBI.”

What about those “anarchists,” the Tea Party legislators who see shutdown as a fair means to their desired political ends? They swear their staffers are standing by them. Republican Senator David Vitter, the author of a policy the House may vote to attach to a new Continuing Resolution (he wants to require federal workers to enter exchanges without any “employer contribution” from the government), fielded this question at a press conference behind the Capitol. “My staff understand that it was the Obamacare statute that did this,” he said. “And my staff agrees with me.”

The House Chaplain, Reverend Patrick Conroy, told me he thinks the Hill is staying sanguine. Sitting on a plush yellow chair in his basement office, he recounted conversations with John Boehner’s chief of staff, whose attitude he summed up as, “We will get through this.”

“While certainly there’s great political disagreement right now, I do not observe that spilling over into interpersonal unpleasantness,” Conroy said, adding that may be because, over the past few years, “we’ve been here before.”

The feeling of normalcy stemmed, in part, from the throngs of tourists, some of whom didn’t even know about the looming shutdown. A group of international college students doing a semester program in journalism at American University had originally scheduled their tour for two weeks ago—the day of the Navy Yard shooting. As they waited on the steps today, Jordan, an American member of the group, told me he wasn’t sure how well his classmates understood what was happening. When I asked for his thoughts on the gridlock in Congress, he said, “I guess we’re lucky we didn’t pick tomorrow.”