WASHINGTON -- Early in the morning, the Capitol is blessedly quiet. Except for the tinkling of ice.
Every morning before nine, workers deliver 900 buckets of ice to members of Congress and their staffs.
In those heady days just after the November election, the Republicans who took over vowed to halt wasteful congressional perks. And the gray plastic ice buckets became a symbol of the pampered congressional life.
But this week, as the House debated a bill to cut spending on programs for the poor, children and the elderly, the icemen still cometh.
"I'm not aware of any directive to discontinue that practice yet," said William Raines Jr., a spokesman for the Architect of the Capitol, an office that oversees operations at congressional buildings. Mr. Raines pegged the cost at $500,000 a year.
No one's quite sure how the practice started, but it's been going on for years. Capitol employees, who do other chores the rest of the day, deliver the buckets of cool cubes from ice machines in the Capitol complex to those who want them.
Some say legislators want their drinks chilled; some say it's a way to hand out patronage jobs.
"It's a throwback to the 1930s when people didn't have refrigerators or air-conditioners," said Rep. Scott Klug, R-Wis., whose ice shows up occasionally. "I have never understood it for the life of me. This is an absolute waste of money. Where is the demand for it? It's foolish."
After the November election, Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa put his foot down. As head of the House Republicans' transition team, he was looking into the great icecapade and was quoted as saying the Republicans would "reverse 40 years of unbridled growth in the staff, resources and cost" of running the House.
Yesterday morning, a gray plastic bucket of ice sat in front of Mr. Nussle's heavy wooden door.
Is it ever going to end?
"Definitely," Mr. Nussle exclaimed.
But it could take a few more months. Lawmakers are working on it, he said, but it's tricky to do away with operations controlled by both the House and the Senate.
Still, Mr. Nussle acknowledged an image problem, especially during a time of budget austerity.
"There is no way in a white marble building to appear as if we are living on a shoestring budget," he said. "We think we are on the road to change. But actions do speak louder than words."
One Democratic congressional aide, who confessed to enjoying four glasses of ice water a day, cringed about the ice delivery.
"I'm surprised the Republicans didn't end it right away," he groaned. "It's a symbol of how spoiled everyone is.
"When I first got here, I was surprised at how the ice just showed up every morning. Now, I sort of like it just to get that five degrees cooler. It's nice on those summer days when your Pepsi is warm."
He's doubtful that the Republicans will ever end the practice.
"People out of power look at easy targets, and then they get in power and realize the utility of those perks and they want them," he said.
Lydia Williams, a spokeswoman for freshman Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., said her office can live without ice delivery.
"It's something we can clearly take or leave," she said.
At first, it was puzzling, she said.
"During our first or second week, we all looked at each other and said 'What is this for?' " Ms. Williams said. "But we are one of those offices without a water cooler. We came to appreciate it."