WASHINGTON -- Finally, Barry Black's prayers were answered.
The Senate chaplain's mellifluous voice and fervent invocations at the start of each Senate session have made him one of the few heroes of this government shutdown -- as when he prayed for God to "save us from the madness." Over the weekend, the good minister got the "Saturday Night Live" treatment:
"Lord, give us strength, but especially to those in Congress, and let them stop being a bunch of blubbering knuckleheads that go onto the television and spout all kinds of nonsense," a Black impersonator prayed. "Lord, bless and forgive these braying jackasses, lest they do something that makes people want to pin them on the floor, shove a sweaty sock in their mouths, and then whoop 'em up and down with a pillowcase full of Skittles."
The real Black, a retired Navy rear admiral, was in his usual place in front of the chamber at the stroke of 2 p.m. Monday. "Inspire our lawmakers who believe in you to also pray," he preached. "May their intercession bring them a tallness of stature that will enable them to see above the walls of partisan division in order to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity."
And then, a miracle. The jackasses stopped braying, the knuckleheads stopped blubbering, and the Democrat lay down with the Republican. For a moment, at least.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who had in recent days accused his GOP counterpart, Mitch McConnell, of having George Orwell as a speechwriter, picked up the microphone and announced:
"Constructive good-faith negotiations continue between the Republican leader and me. I'm very optimistic that we will reach an agreement. ... I deeply appreciate my friend the minority leader for his diligent efforts to come to an agreement."
McConnell, who had said Reid may be remembered as "the worst leader of the Senate ever," spoke next. "Let me just echo the remarks of my good friend the majority leader. We have had an opportunity over the last couple of days to have some very constructive exchanges of views about how to move forward."
After these terms of endearment were uttered, the two leaders met in the center aisle and leaned in, whispering. As McConnell turned to leave, it appeared from the gallery that he put a collegial hand on his foe's back.
Good friends? Deep appreciation? Good faith and optimism?
The sweet talk from two bitter partisans immediately lifted the despair in the capital. President Obama postponed a meeting with congressional leaders so McConnell and Reid could continue their talks. House Speaker John Boehner crossed the Capitol to McConnell's office to learn what he could expect.
There were many obstacles still in place. Could McConnell convince enough of his Senate Republicans that it was time to fold? Would Boehner allow the proposal to come to a vote even if his House Republican Caucus opposes it? And even if both questions were answered in the affirmative, all it would mean is a postponement of the standoff until early next year.
But punting is about the only thing this Congress still does well -- and a hint that it may still be capable of that was relief enough.
For the next couple of hours, Republicans were absent from the floor; there was little to say in public as party leaders cleaned up the mess left of the GOP brand by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Some partisan Democrats, who appeared over the weekend to be willing to stall talks long enough to let Republicans twist in the wind, came to the floor to deliver a few last licks.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., raised questions about the Republicans' patriotism. "It makes no sense to do this to a country you say you love," she said. "Why hurt the country you say you love? Why make the country you say you love look like a laughingstock? ... If you love your country, you don't do that."
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., suggested that those in the other party were arsonists, likening Republicans to a losing baseball team that said, "We are going to hold the crowd hostage and threaten to burn down the stadium." Added Merkley: "You do not hold the American people hostage, and you do not threaten to burn down our economy."
Boxer still blubbered and Merkley still brayed, but there was a new hope: The madness wasn't ending, but there might be a temporary remission.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.