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Behind a discreet set of keypad-entry double doors on the first floor of the Russell Senate Office Building lies one of the last oases of what was once the world’s greatest good-old-boys club: the Senate’s members-only gym.
Senators start trickling in at 5:30 a.m. in various states of dress, without the benefit of sunlight or staff, toting gym bags, newspapers and even to-go venti coffees as custodians above loudly buff the marble floors of Russell’s rotunda. In the era of modern travel and constant campaigning, the mysterious gym — where staffers and security details are barred — has grown into one of the few places where members can just be themselves without fear of repercussions.
“The sweat-filled room has now replaced the smoke-filled room,” quipped Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., one of the deans of the early-morning gym crew. Barrasso is usually the first to arrive in the morning and opens up shop. He and Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who typically arrives minutes later, control the television. The news program they watch is the result of a compromise — MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” is hosted by a conservative, but the channel is left-leaning.
Though certainly there has been some early-morning wheeling and dealing on elliptical machines, many of the 13 members — all men — approached by CQ Roll Call as they went about their daily routines said the most important part of the experience was not negotiating but getting to know more about their colleagues’ personal lives.
That is one of the catches to this club, like so many others in Washington. There is a separate locker room and smaller workout space for the Senate’s 20 female senators. Although few members of the early-morning crew said they had seen women on their side of the gym, or ever seen the women’s workout room, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said she has used the primarily male workout room.
“I’d be fine with it being all opened up, and I think actually that would be a good thing [because] it’s not a real big gym, to make it larger,” Ayotte said Wednesday afternoon. “But I do go over to the other side to use the equipment, and it’s no big deal.”
Last Wednesday morning, like clockwork, Barrasso appeared just moments before CQ Roll Call arrived at 5:30 a.m., but he popped into the hall between his workout and shower to rib a reporter for “sleeping in.” Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., was the last of the morning shift, rolling in at 8:46 a.m.