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April 24, 2014

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LETTER FROM WASHINGTON:

More surreal than a TV drama, national crises sideline major D.C. policy pushes

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If all you knew of Washington were the impressions you gleaned from the television drama “The West Wing,” then this past week may not have seemed like such a big deal.

Then again, even television scriptwriters won’t usually spin this many storylines into a single episode.

The week began with a Senate-centric focus, as one bipartisan council of lawmakers airbrushed the final touches on a long-awaited immigration bill while another two-party pair counted votes on a measure expanding background checks, a crucial component of gun control.

Maybe there would be some news elucidating the saber-rattling bomb threats from North Korea. And Monday afternoon, down Pennsylvania Avenue, President Barack Obama was busy hosting the championship Crimson Tide football squad for a photo op. Then ...

Newsbreak: Boston, Mass., Copley Square, the marathon finish line.

Boom. Boom. Casualties. Chaos.

The Boston Marathon bombing was quickly billed as the first terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001 — the type of event for which the nation looks to its leaders in Washington for answers.

But in Washington, most eyes and ears were on Twitter, cable news networks, and the Boston police and fire online scanner. The leaders themselves were struggling to put facts in any semblance of order. By the end of the week, more than one major news organization would have marred its credible reputation.

Monday evening, Obama officially told the nation that nobody had any idea what was happening, save that explosions had gone on in Boston. So plans for gun control and immigration were temporarily shelved out of respect for the victims. Then ...

Newsbreak: Deadly ricin discovered in letters destined for Senate offices and the president.

Ricin? What? General head-scratching ensues in Washington as reporters tried to remember the last place they’d heard of the poison — an assassination of a Russian dissident in London? No, wait — a recent episode of “Breaking Bad.” The alleged perpetrator would later be identified as a disgruntled Elvis impersonator whom the targeted senator once hired for a party. But not before ...

Newsbreak: Suspicious packages reported in Senate office buildings.

Lawmakers, determined to get back to business on gun control, tried not to be swayed by the latest wave of panic. But as offices were evacuated and bomb squads deployed in areas of the Capitol grounds, on-the-fence senators began to drop like flies from the gun background checks bill.

Sen. Harry Reid, in a last-ditch attempt to change minds, declared he would “vote my conscience” and back a host of gun bans he spent the past 20 years voting against. Gun violence survivors descended on Washington to plead their case. But by evening, gun control was effectively dead.

Newsbreak: Explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, kills at least 14, probably more.

By Thursday, the week’s deadliest tragedy would strike a fatigued capital city as far less shocking than what had come before, especially the events in Boston, where Obama spent the day eulogizing bombing victims.

But events had sufficiently dampened enthusiasm for the big work of the week. Even the immigration compromise’s coming-out party was all but entirely overshadowed. And as D.C. sat up late watching a manhunt for alleged Chechen immigrant bombers play out in Massachusetts, immigration wasn’t just obscured but potentially complicated, as well.

In Washington, there’s always more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye. But somehow, public crises usually come in more manageable chunks. But last week, Washington got stuck — too gripped by crises too far away to legitimately call off work but too mentally consuming to get anything serious done.

Only in television can Washington actually juggle the business of the day with an onslaught of crises of the moment. But when life imitates popular art, it unfortunately doesn’t come with a neatly spun script.

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