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Senators Try to Revive Bipartisan Spirit

Douglas Graham/Roll Call
Sens. Mark Kirk (left) and Joe Manchin ditch their caucus lunches every Thursday to eat together. Other Members are invited to stop by.

Morella said such friendships were critical for legislating.

In those days, establishing those relationships was necessary because you knew you couldnt get anything done if you couldnt get a Member of the other party to sign on, she added.

Some experts attribute the loss of cross-party activities to increasingly nasty politics, but just as many blame the lack of bipartisan activities on constituent demands and time constraints. Kirk argues it is a direct result of President [Jimmy] Carter deregulating the airline industry which led to lower airfares.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who represented Illinois in the House in the 1960s, told Kirk that a flight from Washington to Chicago back then cost $1,500 while Members only made $30,000. It didnt make sense to visit home while Congress was in session.

With todays cheaper air fares, Members almost cant afford not to go home.

Not only do vulnerable House Members leave immediately for home, but the culture says that youre almost a bad Member of Congress if youre not on a plane within one hour of the last vote, Kirk said.

That notion ended the social fabric of the Congress, he said, leaving little to no time for bonding.

Norm Ornstein, Congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute and a Roll Call contributing writer, said Members family living arrangements have also contributed.

It used to be the case that Members would move their families to Washington, and if they were here in Washington, theyd spend weekends together, he said.

They also dined frequently with Members of the opposite party frequently. Former Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) wife used to organize dinner parties for 10 to 15 Congressional couples, recalls Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Each week, a different couple would host. But the tradition eventually died when  Senate schedules grew too hectic for regular get-togethers.

These days, Members often leave their families at home to avoid being tagged a Washington insider.

Its not as if were strangers in the Senate, said Alexander, who used to organize Tuesday bipartisan breakfasts for Senators. We see each other all the time, but we dont have many opportunities to get to know one another in-depth. ... Whats lacking are the opportunities for deep friendships across party lines, and theres not as much of that today as there was 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

Kirk said the little things add up.

The reality is bipartisan cooperation and seeing eye-to-eye can be directly related to the amount of time you spend with each other, said Kirk, who added that he and Manchin often discuss legislation on the budget and debt ceiling.

Theyre not the only ones whove noticed that bonding time across the aisle often results in faster-moving legislation.

The goal of the Senate is not to be bipartisan, but the Senate works a lot better when Senators know one another and understand what their common interests are, Alexander said. We cant get much of anything important done unless Republicans and Democrats agree, and youve got to know each other before you agree.

Alexander often hangs out at the bipartisan prayer breakfast and dines with Democrats such as Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.).

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