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While Democrats and Republicans talk shop in partisan lunches throughout the week, Sens. Mark Kirk and Joe Manchin look forward to their weekly lunch date.
In a throwback to a more bipartisan era, the Illinois Republican and West Virginia Democrat have, for more than two months, met for a little cross-party chitchat. They’ve invited colleagues to join them. So far, few have.
It’s an oft-told story, but the Kirk-Manchin lunches are a reminder that Congress is no longer the bipartisan place it used to be. Aside from a few basketball games in Congressional gyms and the weekly bipartisan prayer breakfasts, Members have few opportunities to strike up friendships across the aisle.
The two freshmen started the lunch meetings in March for this very reason. They began meeting in the often-deserted Senate Room 113, a small dining area which staff sets daily with white tablecloths, glasses and silverware.
“It was like a museum piece: Set up every day for Members that never showed up,” Kirk said. “My main man Manchin and I have adopted that room on Thursdays.”
In the months since, they’ve extended personal invites to other Senators and sent reminder emails, but they can count on two hands the Members who have joined their bipartisan lunches.
Sometimes they eat alone.
Former Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), who served in the 1970s and 1980s, said Democrats and Republicans used to bond at the card table, in the gym, at the bar and on airplanes and buses.
In his day, paddle ball and basketball were popular. Members played on a daily basis, dividing teams by state, region, collegiate or party lines.
And when leadership called votes in the late afternoon, Frenzel remembers sweaty Members entering the chamber in sweat socks and tennis shoes to vote.
Committee members, he said, also traveled around the world together frequently to learn firsthand about policy issues. He joined Republicans and Democrats on trips to Brussels, Geneva and Japan at least once a year and fondly recalls plowing across Eastern Europe in an overcrowded bus with subcommittee colleagues and their wives.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who was first elected in 1955, used to fish and hunt geese with former Reps. John Saylor (R-Pa.) and Edwin Forsythe (R-N.J.). He also vacationed in Colorado, Montana and Texas with a half-dozen Members of both parties.
Former Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.) said 60 to 100 Members used to take retreats together in nonelection years when she was in office.
“They’d put us on a bus together, and we’d get away for a long weekend,” Morella said. “They’d invite speakers to talk to us about working together, and we’d do fun activities, have a nice dinner or play games in the game room.”