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Lawmakers Overcome Party Divide With Hot Cups of Coffee

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Illinois Sens. Mark Kirk (left) and Dick Durbin hold bipartisan constituent meetings once a week.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin faced the constituent who had just complained about new regulations on swipe fees.

“You’re wrong,” he said. 

From behind a podium in a Russell Senate Office Building conference room, the Illinois Democrat explained why he thinks the fees charged by credit card companies hurt consumers.

“It’s not transparent. It’s not competitive. It is just imposed on us,” he said.

And then something unusual happened. Sen. Mark Kirk, Durbin’s Republican counterpart from Illinois, stepped up to the podium and turned to the same constituent.

“I absolutely agree with you,” he said. “Once the government [limits] this fee, banks are going to collect it in other ways.”

It was a rare moment in a city increasingly divided along partisan lines: two Senators from the same state but from different parties, respectfully explaining their positions to constituents. And Durbin and Kirk do it once a week.

These constituents coffees, which allow voters to meet their Senators and ask them questions, are a regular occurrence on the Hill. But Senators from only five states hold their coffees together. And only Kirk and Durbin and the Nebraska delegation cross party lines to hold them.

Durbin said that the disagreements can be the most entertaining and enlightening part of the coffees for the visiting constituents. 

“I’ll usually say, ‘And this is the part you’ll like the most. We’re going to disagree,’” he said. “And they will applaud or smile.”

Durbin said the atmosphere of the constituent coffees allows the two men to take opposing sides respectfully in a lighthearted and informative environment. “People like that ... we don’t punch one another, we just disagree,” he said.

Although Kirk and Durbin openly disagree on major issues, they can find common ground when talking about Illinois. 

“While he’s the Democratic leader and I’m a Republican Senator, we agree on a ton of Illinois issues,” Kirk said. “We have a very good working relationship.”

Kirk explained that the coffees provide an opportunity for the Senators to meet with the constituents they would not be able to see otherwise. 

“Our schedules are so busy, you can’t see absolutely everyone,” he said. “So you just come in on Thursday morning, and you’ve seen both of your Senators, and you get to ask them questions.”

During his discussion of swipe fee legislation, Durbin made specific Illinois references for members of the audience. 

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